Sunday 28 October 2018

The DAB Radio Flop in Norway: A Return to FM Rejected by Culture Minister

             Picture: Opplands Arbeiderblad
But political support for local FM radio retained beyond 2021.
Today less than half of the population in Norway listen to national radio only on DAB since switching off FM last year. In a Stortinget (parliament) debate the Center Party representative Åslaug Sem-Jacobsen wants to restore the public broadcaster NRK’s FM network for the main channel P1. Culture Minister Trine Skei Grande (Liberals) believes, however, that this is not serious. According to Sem-Jacobsen NRK in emergency preparedness has a mission to reach the whole population.

Since the national radio listenership has decreased much and the military and its allies operates in the same frequency range (230-240 MHz) as the national radio on DAB, it would be wise to turn on the main channel P1 on FM again.

People still complain about lack of coverage for DAB. The FM shutdown has unfortunately led to decreased listening of what we have always liked in radio, and it is sad. The FM shutdown is the only thing that separates Norway from other countries. It's no use to blame this fallout on streaming and podcasts, because such competition in other countries is just as great, said Sem-Jacobsen in the parliament debate. P1 is our emergency channel. The authorities do not come up with contingency reports anymore, as long as P1 is only on DAB.

Sem-Jacobsen also adds that only half of the cars today are equipped with DAB radio. She also believes there is a problem that foreign registered cars do not have DAB radio. And the geographical coverage is also not good enough, we have problems, she said.

In August, broadcast provider Norkring announced that the FM network cannot be switched on again and that parts of the equipment have been sent to Malawi for reuse. This explanation was rejected by Sem-Jacobsen. Well, it turned out to be just 14 smaller transmitters, of a few thousand. And they belonged to commercial channel P4 and not to NRK, so this argument fell, she said.

Sem-Jacobsen believes that it will cost about NOK 100-200 million to run both an FM network for radio and a DAB network. But I think we can afford this. Our total defense is at an all time low after the war, she said, adding that Defense Secretary Frank Bakke-Jensen has stated that the Norwegian defense authorities have never been involved, valued or pronounced in connection with the FM closure or the introduction of DAB.

Culture Minister Trine Skei Grande (V) believes the preparedness of the authorities is not only based on radio, which is still important, but there are other media such as television, social media and text messages. The emergency preparedness agency DSB and the telecom authority Nkom have both considered the DAB network more technically robust than the FM network, says Grande. - NRK estimates that a new FM network for P1 will cost NRK between SEK 270-360 million in annual rent based on a depreciation period of three to five years. Grande claimed that the radio coverage is better now than before the FM shutdown.

Grande did not come out well in this debate because she made a fumbling performance and avoided to answer many questions. Observers noted that she appeared to follow a manuscript provided by NRK and other DAB promoting interests. The Ministry of Culture is the exclusive owner of the public broadcaster in Norway.

The Center Party requires a review the FM network decision. We need to figure out how much it will cost to turn on the FM network again, said party chairman Trygve Slagsvold Vedum earlier this fall.

Text reference for the complete debate in Stortinget (Item No. 2, 11: 1: 44) (in Norwegian)
Can also be viewed on video.

In the parliament debate, politicians from other parties also participated but none supported the proposal that NRK P1 should return to FM. However,, Morten Wold was clear that his Progress Party will go for local radio will continue on FM also after 2022. This is also the Center Party policy.

There are indications in several other parties of support for retainment of local radio on FM. But this will meet tough resistance by the commercial duopoly now on DAB alone, with firece resistance that commercial local radio station should be able to broadcast on FM especially in the four largest cities; Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim. Before the decision in the parliament in 2011 the duopoly lobbied for a total FM switch-off also for local radio at the 2017 transition to DAB+.

During the Minister of Culture’s crisis meeting with the radio industry earlier this month, the Local Radio Federation clearly stated that local radio will not survive without FM.

Local radio on DAB only might kill both commercial and community local radio without a hefty annual state support (as in Switzerland). The DAB technical structure is too complex and the costs are too high for smaller operators. Also significant losses of listenership is feared as FM is a global standard while DAB is not. Such an assessment is also shared with pan-European local radio organizations.

Internationally the message from the DAB lobby is that the transition to DAB is a success. However, this view is far from being shared by half of the population in Norway which  prefer local or cross-border radio on FM or otherwise listen online.

Also read

Listeners Calling on the Parliament to Restore FM Radio in Norway
Norwegian MP: DAB Radio in Norway Is a Tragedy
50 Percent of Norwegians Do Not Switch to DAB. Rather Stay on FM
Why DAB Radio in Norway, But Not in Sweden?