Monday 5 March 2018

The Impossible Mission: A Global Future for DAB Radio

Will radio listeners rather keep their six billion FM receivers? 
Terrestrial digital radio is still the wet dream for some broadcasters especially in the European public service sector.  There are several different such systems but DAB is the system which has been initiated by some European public service broadcasters. But since the system was introduced and taken into operation by BBC 1995 the progress is quite limited in spite of DAB being aggressively promoted by the EBU and WorldDAB organisations.

Here you will find some major observations and read an analysis indicating that DAB will not survive another decade. Not even in Norway.

At the moment DAB as an established radio platform only in five countries; the UK, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Australia have listening of at least 10% on a weekly basis. There are trials in another 35 countries but there are in fact few listeners. Germany and the Netherlands with full coverage national DAB networks have a listening below 5%. In France major broadcasters are not on DAB.

There are also countries where DAB has been tested but then rejected; for example Canada, Portugal, Latvia, Finland, Sweden, Hongkong, Singapore and Taiwan. Some major nations have their systems of their own as the United States, Japan and China while India is going for DRM.

Lobbyist from the EBU, WorldDAB and Norway are now desperately promoting DAB at international radio conferences. However, the global future for DAB is quite hopeless. Here is why:
  • FM is a global standard in all 220 countries. Norway is still the only country switching-off its national FM network. The estimated world total of FM receivers is more than 6 billions with at least 1,5 billion in Europe. 60 million DAB receivers sold might sound impressive, but not in this global context. 
  • DAB is not in demand by consumers and listeners. The DAB system was not introduced in Norway in a free consumer market but rather as a from top-down solution by the public service broadcaster and an effective lobby.
  • A DAB transmitter has a limited transmitter range compared to FM. To replace an FM network you will need a considerable number of additional DAB transmitters. This is why nations with vast geographical areas as India, China, Brazil and Russia have expressed interest for other digital radio systems than DAB - as DRM in the FM band or lower frequencies.
  • There is an increasing demand by OTA television broadcasters to use and reclaim frequencies in the VHF band III. Also the military - including NATO - wants frequencies from 225 MHz and up. DAB is far from using all allotted frequency space in VHF band III and might soon lose out against television and military demands. There are no other frequency bands for DAB. Other system as DRM, HD Radio and CDR use the FM-band and lower (HF MF).
  • Internet radio (and music streaming) is the worldwide popular digital radio. For audio streaming there will be almost no quantitative limits on fixed or mobile broadband networks. The on-line sound quality and choice is superior to the DAB broadcasting output.
  • In the near future every adult and young person in the world will own a smartphone. And there is no indications that smartphones will not come with DAB capabilities but rather with FM. This year the smartphone population will reach 2,5 billion.
  • The only alternative radio platform challenging FM is on-line listening. This will be accentuated when on-line broadcasting technologies as LTE Broadcast (4G and 5G) are introduced.
  • In some countries DAB has been aggressively promoted as a replacement of FM. But trying to force the listener  away from FM will add damage to the credibility of the system and its promoters. This will also tarnish the image of public service broadcasters involved. Numerous reports since 2016 confirm that the replacement of FM with DAB+ in Norway is unpopular and meeting a fierce resistance among listeners.
The promoters of the DAB system might have ignored the crucial rule:  A broadcaster must adapt the listening platform to where listeners are - not where the broadcaster want them to be. There are no signs anywhere that listeners will abandon FM or online listening in favor of DAB.

Also read
The Illusions of the DAB Radio World Are Worrying