Germany Shows The Way: Today, FM still strong, while DAB stagnates
Just over six years ago, the federal government presented an action plan to transition to digital radio broadcasting. No switch-off date for analogue distribution of radio via FM was given. According to the latest media analysis, 89% of the population in Germany still listens to FM radio every day. 15.1 percent use DAB+ every day, net radio has a daily reach of 9.1 percent. According to journalist Volker Nünning, the action plan from 2017 seems to have been forgotten in media politics: The digitization of radio is only going slowly, also because the market players have different interests.
Thus, listening to radio in Germany continues to be mostly terrestrial via FM – a technique that German listeners were able to use to receive radio for the first time in 1950 when NWDR broadcast the first program. Today, there is at least one FM radio in almost every German household - according to the state media authorities' calculations, there should be around 120 million FM radios in total. The radio receivers sold today are generally multi-platform based with both FM and DAB+ and often also Internet capability. In new cars, these three platforms are integrated.
UPLINK Network is the market leader in FM broadcasts, but also operates a broadcast network for DAB+. The company has as its customers both private and public broadcasters. The closest competitor is Media Broadcast Gmbh. Uplink offers radio stations distribution of their programs also as an Internet stream. In a longer interview, the company's owner and CEO Michael Radomski predicts significant changes in the early or mid-2030s, with radio listening primarily taking place on the Internet, secondarily on FM and thirdly on DAB+.
The lack of a return channel is a disadvantage for terrestrial broadcasts. Online, you can interact directly with the user, take in their wishes and predict their behavior. Radomski also believes that there are no longer capacity problems on the Internet. Bandwidth is not as expensive or scarce today as it was 10 or 20 years ago. And above all, audio uses only a very small bandwidth. And even in the case of video, this will no longer be a problem in five or ten years, because so much bandwidth is available so cheaply – even on mobile phones – that it won't matter at all.
“When people keep saying that DAB+ is the future because it's digital, then it's wrong in that I don't have this return channel - which, and we see how important the Internet is to us, will be crucial in the radio sector as well in the future. What can DAB+ do that FM can't? Actually very little. All the advantages that are always highlighted there are not decisive for the user. That's also the problem, why users of DAB+ don't themselves say it's much better than FM, we all use it now and forget about FM, but stick to FM. DAB+ is actually FM 2.0, but without any real benefits for the user.”
Radomski calls DAB+ a "bridge technology". DAB+ will "only play a niche role in the long term, so a hasty switch from FM to DAB plus will damage media diversity overall"
Although FM radio usage continues to dominate, it has declined noticeably over the years. According to figures from the state media authorities for 2022, only 55.8 percent of those over the age of 14 still use FM as the most used type of radio reception. In 2018, this figure was just under 69 percent. 12.6 million households now have at least one DAB radio, which corresponds to almost a third of all households in Germany. But one can also ask the opposite why, after ten years, only 30.8 percent of households have access to DAB+.
Web radio has been able to record increasing values here in recent years - this was no longer the case for the German development of DAB+ which shows signs of stagnation. This raises the question of what role DAB+ can play in the digitization of radio broadcasts. This is a controversial topic in the industry. Is DAB+ just a transitional or bridging technology until radio broadcasts will at some point be largely only via the Internet, i.e. IP-based?
Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs der Rundfunkanstalten (KEF) (Commission to determine the financial needs of broadcasters) finds it "remarkable" that DAB+ recently dropped something in the state media authorities' question about the most used type of distribution. The investigation, which consists of 16 experts and is otherwise very reluctant to make public judgments, plays a role in the digitization of radio broadcasts that should not be underestimated. Among other things, it determines how much money public service should receive for terrestrial distribution of its radio programs via FM and DAB+.
Together, public broadcasters ARD and Deutschlandradio are spending a total of 401.3 million euros to finance the simultaneous distribution of their programs via FM and DAB+ – the so-called simulcast – over four years. KEF has developed a model according to which the approved budget for this is reduced over the years. The goal was "that only the distribution costs for DAB+ should be reported from 2029".
Given the rather slow progress of DAB+ recently, it is unlikely that the Commission will be willing to offer broadcasters additional money from 2029 to allow the simulcast to continue. However, this is still likely to be necessary as FM will still play a central role in five years. And at the latest, the public service broadcasters will come under pressure as they have to decide how to prioritize terrestrial broadcasting.
During the current grant period, KEF has granted Deutschlandadio an average of EUR 30.5 million per year for program distribution via FM and DAB+. It cannot be ruled out that in the near future the Commission will take a closer look at the high costs of terrestrial broadcasting at Deutschlandradio and ARD and how digital radio has developed so far.
In Germany, it remains to be seen how KEF will act against the development of digital radio. The fact that eight new members have been represented in the Commission since the start of the new term at the beginning of 2022 may also play a role. The Commission has emphasized that the use of IP broadcasting of audio programs is growing rapidly. The market success of Spotify should be mentioned here. Many car manufacturers also rely on "Connected Cars" and can use audio content via streaming.
KEF points out that mobile network operators are expanding their networks in accordance with specifications from the state communications authority to achieve a nationwide coverage of at least 50 megabits per second by the end of 2024. According to the commission, an audio stream requires about 2.5 percent of this capacity.
DAB is still not a globally accepted system standard. It which was launched in 1995 and is established in national networks in around ten countries with the United Kingdom on top. Only one country - Norway - has replaced FM with DAB in the national networks. Previous investigative proposals to replace FM with DAB in Sweden have been rejected by the government and the parliament. However there are some contingental DAB broadcasting in four regions. Public broadcaster Sveriges Radio estimates DAB's listenership share to be less than 1%. There are no plans to open for DAB in Finland.
The complete interview with Machael Radomski
Ab Anfang der 30er Jahre hören wir Online statt UKW (RadioSzene)
Report by Volker Nuenning