Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The Final Countdown -The Future of DAB Radio Is Over - [Updated]

Global smartphone revolution killing a 25 year pyramid scheme which has cost taxpayers billions


Public Access Nordic has for some decades observed developments in the field of broadcasting in Sweden, the Nordic countries and the rest of the world. Particular attention has been paid to the attempts to introduce DAB as a digital platform for terrestrial radio. However, DAB replacing FM radio is something that radio listeners never asked for. Dissatisfaction with the FM has ever been reported.  Today, FM radio is merely challenged by digital radio via the Internet. Despite this, the DAB system stakeholders continue conducting extensive lobbying in Europe. In some countries, the lobby has managed to lure the pants of politicians. They managed to close national FM in Norway, but not in Sweden.


The editors predict that lobbying will continue for a long time to come as this is the only chance for DAB to survive. Otherwise, market forces would quickly kill the DAB system. The editors have noted that the DAB stakeholders have never responded to criticism of the shortcomings in the system.

Read our overview of the situation for DAB with facts, analysis and conclusions. Views and comments, including anyone not sharing our views and conclusions are welcome. 

Background


DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) is one of several systems for terrestrial digital radio. It was developed as early as in the 1980s in Munich and was launched 1995 by some European public service companies with the BBC, NRK and SR leading. The intention was from the beginning that DAB would supplement analogue FM radio with increased sound quality, primarily in cars, but over time this goal became quantitative insofar as DAB could offer many more channels than FM. This became however detrimental to the sound quality.


The game changed significantly around the turn of the millennium with audio being distributed over the Internet. All this development was accentuated in Sweden when mobile broadband on 4G became well established in the 2010s. Here, WiFi in homes and in public environments is also driving forces. In your smartphone, smart speaker or connected car, you can listen to more than a thousand times more radio and music channels than via a DAB network. Also with access to channels with much better sound quality.


In the world's approximately 220 nations and territories, analogue broadcasting technology is still the main platform for radio. Mainly FM, but in several countries there is still also medium wave (AM). The shortwave is still used for international, national and regional reach.


DAB radio is available in 30 countries, but where are the listeners?

A fundamental problem with the decades of attempts to launch the DAB system is the lack of listener figures in order to display a real consumer interest. Proponents of DAB list all countries where the DAB system is introduced, but often it is about trial broadcasts in one or a couple of cities. As for example in Romania, Spain and Turkey.


25 years after its launch, DAB has been established for nationwide radio in only four (4) European countries; Great Britain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. Established here means that a nationwide transmitter network has been built up that reaches the majority of the population, but at the same time has a significant proportion of radio listening;  at least a 15 percent share on a weekly basis. Germany and the Netherlands, for example, have nationwide networks, but have limited DAB listening as FM and Internet radio have larger shares.


The only country outside Europe with a significant share of DAB listening is Australia, where the five major cities are covered by DAB networks. But still Australia will retain both the main FM and AM platforms.


A global market for DAB is not in sight


To date, approximately 82 million DAB receivers have been sold since the technology was launched in 1995. Most have been sold in the United Kingdom, Denmark and Norway. A significant proportion of these sets can only receive the original system DAB, which since been abandoned in all countries except the United Kingdom. Other countries have adopted the upgraded version DAB+.


It is estimated that by 2020 there are at least 6 billion FM receivers in the world and 2.5 billion smartphones. Today, smartphones have become the major listening platform for radio alongside FM radio.


The rapid development of podcast radio is also important. "Broadcasting" like FM and DAB is outside the podcast sphere. DAB is completely linear, lacks play functions, i.e. the ability for listeners to listen to their favorite programs when they choose (as well as to pause and repeat as needed).


It has become almost impossible to measure consumer interest in receiver equipment for DAB because most stationary receivers marketed today have capabilities for both FM and DAB. However, sales of stationary and portable radio receivers have steadily decreased, which in itself is a global system change.


Mobile manufacturers have so far been reluctant to include DAB in their smartphones. Attempts to include DAB in smartphones have not been successful. A DAB receiver consumes significantly more energy than a corresponding FM receiver. The decisive reason is that a global consumer market for DAB has not developed. It is estimated that less than one (1) percent of the world's population today listens to radio via DAB.


It is highly unlikely that DAB ever will be accepted in the world's eleven largest nations; China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico and Japan, which together muster half the world's total population.


Several countries have chosen or are choosing other digital systems for terrestrial radio such as DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) and HD Radio. This is because these systems use current frequency bands for FM (VHF II) as well as short and medium wave (HF). Here you get a transmitter range that is superior to DAB, which can only be transmitted on the higher frequency band (VHF III) previously intended for television. Short range means that investing in DAB transmitters will be too expensive outside the largest cities. This has already been noted in India, Pakistan, Brazil and Russia.


Norway occupies a world-unique position as the only country where FM has been replaced by DAB for its national network. Switzerland might follow suit 2023. Among the countries that have previously trialed DAB and/or declined public investment at national level are Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Portugal, Spain, Latvia, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, Ireland and New Zealand.


Mobile broadband 5G will affect radio and television worldwide

The development of mobile broadband means the most striking change for the distribution of audio and video media, including radio. It means a waste of society's resources to build special DAB networks alongside all the 4G and 5G networks that are now being expanded everywhere. Unlike DAB, mobile networks are used for communication and other utilities not only distributing radio programs that are largely characterized by entertainment (music and sports).


As early as the end of this year, there are 220 million 5G subscriptions and more than 1 billion people, about 15 percent of the world's population, are in areas with 5G coverage. The forecast for 2026 is that the number of 5G subscriptions will amount to 3.5 billion, about 40 percent of all mobile subscriptions globally. 60 percent of the world's population is then expected to have 5G coverage, according to The 2020 Ericson Mobility Report.


Trial broadcasts with radio over 5G have been taking place for a couple of years. For example BBC is conducting successful trials in Scotland.


Will cars with Hybrid Radio become a lifeline for DAB interests?


The lobby organization WorldDAB, together with various private and state interests, has succeeded in enforcing an EU provision that car radio receivers in new passenger cars (not buses and lorries) must be able to receive "terrestrial digital radio". Even if DAB is not mentioned in the regulation, car manufacturers are forced to equip passenger cars with DAB (then becomes a complement to FM and the Internet). However, this is contrary to EU competition rules as there are also other systems for terrestrial digital radio, e.g. the European DRM system. The new technology 5G Broadcast will probably also be classified as "terrestrial digital radio".


The lobby is also courting governments in major European countries i.e. Germany and Italy for new regulations forbidding FM only receivers for sale on a national market. DAB should always be included, even if there is Internet/Bluetooth/WiFi capacity embedded.


The DAB promoters have also with great enthusiasm adopted "hybrid radio", as all three platforms are available in the car radio; terrestrial analog (FM) resp. digital radio (DAB etc) and via mobile broadband. Hybrid radio then receives seamlessly and automatically via the platform which is best received. The radio listener thus does not need to know if she/he is listening to FM, DAB or the Internet.


In the absence of proven consumer interest, the lobby continues to confuse decision-makers claiming that “DAB” is needed for “digital listening” in cars. The truth is, however, that hybrid radio is good enough without DAB. There is nothing to suggest that FM and mobile broadband in cars are not enough for channel choice and sound quality.


Problems with DAB technology are ignored


In response to inquiries about digital radio, shortcomings with the DAB system have often been noted, but according to the proponents, there are not any problems with DAB at all. The criticism in the public debate, in the press or on social media has never been met professionally, either by special interests, authorities or political leaders.


About fifty market problems and technical shortcomings with DAB were presented in 2019 by a Nordic working group in a report from the independent think tank Public Service Council in Sweden: DAB facts 2019 - Crucial problems and disadvantages with the digital system DAB for terrestrial sound broadcasting


The inconvenient facts in the internationally disseminated report have never been disputed by any DAB stakeholder or promoter. The silence is compact and appears to be strategic.


Norway - DAB introduction was set by stakeholders, not the consumer market 


Since the national radio FM networks were closed in Norway, it has turned out that DAB does not perform as promised. In newspapers and social media insufficient coverage and many interruptions ”drop-outs" are frequently reported by listeners . Half the amount of the 30 or so DAB channels each have less than a 2% listener share 2020. The two commercial broadcasters German Bauer and Swedish NENT, now only on DAB, have had significantly worse financial results, while local radio, which is still available on FM, is doing better than in many years.The forced change in technology has irritated many radio consumers, who want to make their own choices.


There are also many questions left as to whether the level of emergency preparedness (EAS) has deteriorated in Norway due to a shift to DAB. NRK has so far refused to release a documented risk and vulnerability analysis (ROS).


In the absence of market-driven consumer demand, lobbying interests took shortcuts directly to politicians and other decision-makers. Politicians in Stortinget (the parliament), as well as many culture ministers, were incited by the term "digital radio" and led by the light of lobbyists.


The unique decision by Stortinget to replace nationwide FM networks with DAB was made after a coup-like campaign by a limited number of people in the “radio industry” who have found their own personal advantages with a technology shift. With the help of PR expertise and a semi-government company “Digital Norge AS” (today transformed into an Internet oriented entity Norsk Radio AS), the special interests succeeded through a collusion to set the agenda and control the entire process. The European lobby organization WorldDAB was the major outside resource.


Neither the Ministry of Culture nor the media authority Medietilsynet took into account information or facts from any objective sources independent of the DAB stakeholders. This has now been confirmed after communication with those concerned. Thus, the parliament decision was entirely based upon the agenda och facts provided by DAB stakeholders.


Politicians and government officials seem to have completely and uncritically trusted the DAB stakeholders. This is not so surprising because one of the actors behind DAB is alsoNorway's most important news provider; NRK. The tax-financed public service broadcaster exerts a strong influence on the officials in the Ministry of Culture and the media authority. Criticism of DAB has not been allowed by NRK, even internally.


The hasty and scandalous closure of FM has been swept under the rug by all political parties except the opposition party Senterpartiet (SP). Interestingly enough, prior to the 2021 election SP has now sailed into public opinion as one of the largest parties in Stortinget.

It should be interesting for political scientists to study in more detail why all parliamentary parties in Sweden rejected the proposal to close FM, while most parties in Norway gave the go-ahead. In Sweden there was no organized DAB lobby as in Norway. In Sweden there was a greater input breadth by independent authorities, scientific institutions and also more vivid discussion in public media. The qualified review of the National Audit Office definitely killed the proposal.


Citizens' interests can be said to have been grossly disregarded when the Norwegian state administration gave in to the special interests. It has been claimed that the decision was democratic. But this can be strongly questioned because the basis for the decision was manipulated by the stakeholders. The decision was not democratic, other than in the formal sense. Radio listeners in Norway are now being stuck with the unmatchable card.


DAB listening is almost non-existent in Sweden


Test DAB transmissions took place already 1992 in Stockholm and it became official in 1995. Although three investigations have since addressed the issue of replacing FM radio with DAB, no progress has been made. In 2015, an unanimous Riksdag (all eight parties) rejected the latest inquiry's proposal to replace FM with DAB. It is basically a question of whether the state should finance such a transition for the public service broadcaster Sveriges Radio (SR).  


However, there is no ban on broadcasting DAB in Sweden and today private networks Bauer and NENT also broadcast on DAB, with a permit issued in 2014. SR continues to broadcast DAB with its temporary permit in four different areas. However, DAB are so unknown by the Swedes that listening share havs never been reported. FM and the Internet continue to dominate radio listening in Sweden. Inside sources at SR estimate that today about half of the listening to SR's programs is via the Internet (fixed and mobile broadband).


In Sweden, as in a large part of the world, "digital radio" is now synonymous with radio via the Internet. There are currently no initiatives in Sweden to put DAB back again as an issue of the political agenda.


How does the DAB lobby operate internationally?


WorldDAB is an organization that aims to promote the DAB radio standard. The members mainly consist of public service broadcasters, commercial radio companies, electronics manufacturers etc.

WorldDAB main office is in London, but is legally headquartered in Geneva at the same address as the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU is an interest organization for public service broadcasters. The organization has no affiliation with the EU and its institutions, but has a well-staffed lobby office in Brussels. Like Fifa and similar organizations in Switzerland, WorldDAB and the EBU lack the openness and transparency required in a democratic society. This is despite the fact that both organizations are indirectly but largely financed by tax and license payers in Europe.


To our knowledge WorldDAB has never been examined and questioned, despite the fact that slanted information, withholding of facts and effective illusion-making have been more the rule than the exception. 


A significant part of the facts about DAB published in different languages on Wikipedia derives from one and the same source, namely WorldDAB. 


When persuading politicians and officials in a country the WorldDAB selling point is its own story of a successful introduction of DAB in other countries. But such a success never includes listeners. This hard sale that might lead to tragic consequences in several countries investing in a technology which will not provide any detectable cultural, societal or industrial benefits. Pushing poverty-stricken countries like Northern Macedonia, Tunisia, Colombia and South Africa to invest in DAB must be seen as reprehensible.


In 2016, the Public Service Council recommended that political decision-makers think twice before being persuaded to decide on a transition to DAB technology. They should seek advice from independent economic and technical experts, who are not affiliated with the EBU, WorldDAB and other stakeholders. How much money will such a stillborn prestige project cost European taxpayers and license fee payers, Gunnar Bergvall, chairman of the Public Service Council, asked himself. Do listeners, consumers and citizens really know what's going on? The letters DAB may soon stand for "Dead And Buried". The European public service sector risks losing credibility following a DAB radio failure.


An observer has compared the game of DAB to a pyramid scheme - or a ponzi scheme - in the worst case scenario, to grow in scope over a long period of time. Only those who will withdrew before the collapse can avoid becoming losers. A pyramid scheme with politicians as game tiles and taxpayers standing for the bill. Foul play is not illegal, but cynical and immoral.


There is no future for DAB radio 


Experience shows that FM networks must be completely shut down in order to force consumers to switch to DAB. So far, only Norway has adopted this strategy. However, it is likely that the DAB system will never gain a sufficient foothold in the rest of Europe before it is considered obsolete and begins to be phased out.


For 25 years, however, the system has managed to establish its presence, not among consumers, but among politicians and bureaucrats who are triggered by the concept of "digitalisation". However, today public service broadcasters should be expected to better understand the future. The BBC, which has been a leader in the development of DAB in the 1990s, now regards the internet as the most important platform for radio and television of the future.


The expansion of DAB has now stagnated in Europe 2020 according to German PCWELT. The world is facing a very tough economic period. Neither public budgets nor commercial analyzes will see any societal nessesity for investments in a third plattform for audio broadcasting.


A probable scenario that DAB will stay with us for another decade, as a complementary platform, with national or regional transmitter networks in about 20 European countries. An important component is the EU rule that forces car manufacturers to provide car radios with the option of also receiving "terrestrial digital radio". However, there will not be a sufficiently extensive natural market for other types of recivers in households. There will be no role for DAB in the smartphone revolution.


DAB will not replace FM for in-car receivers. FM radio is all too well established throughout the world, with robustness and better transmitter range than DAB, which is a crucial contingency advantage. In December 2020, Finland decided that FM radio should be mandatory in new cars.


Outside Europe, with the exception of Australia, DAB is unlikely to develop further. In the countries that want to upgrade analogue radio (medium wave and FM) to become more efficient digitization will take place with more modern systems such as DRM30 and DRM+.


(Pic: VG newspaper Oslo)

The uphill for DAB becomes extra steep when at the same time the commercial radio industry, which bases its operations on linear radio, is no longer a growth industry. It will be difficult to convince radio listeners, who have now become accustomed to the FM and  Internet combination, that DAB provides any added value.


During the quarter-century that DAB existed, the chances of a market breakthrough were initially significantly greater than today. The Internet did not exist as a media platform and DAB could attract with improvements as space for more channels than FM. Today, the system can not offer any competitive added value when mobile and fixed broadband are established everywhere.


The DAB investment in Norway was also not the success the lobby expected to be able to put on display for the world. We are still waiting for a report of any commercially successful investments in DAB radio for commercial broadcasters in any country. Opposition against switching from FM to DAB is clearly strong for local radio and especially for non-commercial community radio.


Public service broadcasters are gaining more and more political attention in step with an increasing dependence on public financing, while the audience is increasingly leaving linear radio and television in favor of online media. The demands for efficiency, channel closures, return to the core policy of program production, staff reductions etc. make the public service broadcasters more cautious with new technology investments. Risky system changes can create negative public opinion and political questioning of public service if the public and politicians discover the ugly game behind DAB in Norway. NRK is a tragic example of what public service should not be; stronger than the state, with the listeners as cannon fodder.


Continued funding of DAB will be like pouring money into a black hole. There is no evidence that an already outdated broadcast system will ever come out of the shadow of the worldwide platforms FM and Internet. 


Those who want to listen to audio programs with both news and current affairs as well as entertainment, especially music, do not care if this is delivered analogue or digital, on FM, DAB or the Internet. Accessibility, diversity and sound quality will be crucial. The global market will be the best guide to future success for any sound and healthy business. 


Also read

Is There Any Good Year for DAB? (Radio World, Jan. 2021)

Smartphone Now The No. 1 Media Platform In Sweden

BBC Will Evolve Into an Internet Broadcaster

BBC Extending 5G Radio Broadcast Trial in Scotland


49 Shades of Grey - Why DAB Will Not Survive as Platform for Future Radio

Why DAB Radio in Norway, But Not in Sweden?

The Illusions of the DAB Radio World Are Worrying