Saturday 31 July 2021

Flood Disaster Gives Second Thought About Not Retaining FM Radio

Sirens and FM radio is the best solution in the event of a disaster

The flood disaster in Germany has put the finger on emergency alert systems (EAS).  While the digital radio platforms as DAB and online as well as mobile networks went out of service FM radio most of the time stayed on. In German media now there is a debate on the importance of a robust broadcasting system. The new digital might not be better than proven analogue platforms. FM radio programs reach 74.7 percent of the German-speaking population aged 14 and over per working day (Monday-Friday). Online audio has a daily reach of 11.4 percent (8.0 million) ahead of DAB+ with 9.8 percent (6.9 million). And a great major part of all cars, buses and trucks on the road are not equipped with DAB+ (This includes most foreign registered vehicles).

While FM has become the world standard and there is no country on earth where you can only receive noise in the analog band, the digital terrestrial radio DAB+ will only play a role in selected regions.  Even in Europe there is a patchwork quilt, according to German online publication 

The flood disaster in parts of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate shows that, as an industrialized country, crises of considerable proportions can reach us at any time and unexpectedly. In such a case, the (timely) alerting and the short-term information of the population are of elementary importance, writes Michael Radomski CEO of the UPLINK Group in Radioszene.

Technical infrastructure - and in particular telecommunications - is always particularly vulnerable in the event of a disaster, regardless of whether it is caused by weather, earthquakes, accidents or terrorism and war. The partial failure of the Internet and the mobile phone networks in the regions affected by the flood clearly shows this. In far-reaching crisis scenarios, the public supply of (mobile) voice and data access is particularly quickly interrupted or overloaded.

Alerting the population with sirens, as was ensured in the past and has been increasingly expanded again for some time, is the simplest and most far-reaching solution there is. Simultaneously with this alert, the population can be informed in a targeted manner via various channels (radio, TV, Internet, warning app, SMS, etc.), whereby the FM radio distribution channel has proven to be the least susceptible to interference in the current damage situation.

While in the areas affected by the flood the power supply, internet connections and cellular coverage were and in some cases still are severely impaired, the maintenance and restoration of FM broadcasting from private and public broadcasters was ensured comparatively quickly. The reason is the high area coverage from a few locations as well as the low complexity of the network, which enables a quick repair or replacement solution even in the event of severe damage. The existing equipment of the population with FM radios (partly battery-operated or independent of the power supply in the car) makes it easier to reach people in crisis areas even in the event of natural disaster.

Picture: VG Oslo
Picture: VG Oslo

Radomski reminds us that radio is the most widely used medium in Germany, almost 80% of the population listen to the radio every day, and practically every resident has access to FM radio. The private and public broadcasters have an enormous reach and economic power. Despite the ongoing change in media consumption (especially due to the Internet and smartphones), the range of FM radio is only decreasing very slightly. Alternatives such as streaming or DAB+ complement the existing infrastructure rather than replace it. 
Of course, analog radio also has disadvantages, but it is all too easy to overlook the advantages of analog radio in the “digitalization euphoria”, writes Lausitzer Allgemeine Zeitung  (LAZ) The technology has proven itself in practice for centuries. Even the best hacker can't do anything against an analog radio. Even a license-free radio can transmit several kilometers without a base station. But not only radios are supposed to be yesterday's technology, this also applies to FM (VHF) radio.

From the point of view of crisis prevention alone, FM should be retained. FM actually gets by with low distribution costs. The acquisition costs of the technology - both transmission and reception technology - are manageable and not much can break during ongoing operations. DAB+ can certainly score with a greater variety of stations and better sound quality, but it requires a lot more sensitive broadcasting stations. And it is precisely this point that can backfire in a crisis scenario, writes the newspaper . Simplified: A simple FM transmitter station on a mountain can easily cover a radius of 30 kilometers or more.

In Switzerland according to an internal audit report of the Defense Department (DDPS), significant flaws with the emergency informatio system were found. One point of criticism: In an emergency, information should be provided via FM . This technology will be replaced by the new  digital DAB system by 2023. This has one major disadvantage: With DAB, you can no longer reach the private shelters and public protective systems or cellars that are underground. In the event of an emergency, a contract between DDPS and the telecom authority Swisscom ensures that the population can be informed via FM until 2027. There is still no solution for the time after that.

A proposal to replace FM with DAB in Sweden was rejected by the government and the Parliament 2015. One of many reasons was that the well EAS established FM network was modern and robust. The culture minister also pointed to concerns from the Swedish defense, which uses some of the DAB frequencies, and that there were also reports that the planned DAB networks would not have the same coverage area as the current FM networks.

Read more:

Michael Radomski: „Kombination von Sirenen und UKW-Radio beste Lösung im Katastrophenfall” (Radioszene)

UKW-Radio & Analogfunk: Hat sich die Digitalisierung im Krisenszenario bewährt? (Lausitzer Allgemeine Zeitung)

DAB+ in Europa: Auch im Jahr 2021 noch Flickenteppich. (Teltarif)

Radio beweist Relevanz in der Krise – UKW bleibt mit Abstand wichtigster Verbreitungsweg (Radiowoche)

So mangelhaft ist unser Warn-System im Ernstfall (Blick)

Also read:

FM Radio Switch-Off Problems for Swiss Emergency Information

Deteriorating Emergency Radio in Norway After DAB Transition

FM Radio a Global Standard Mobile Emergency Utility

Final Stop For DAB Radio in Sweden