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When will U.K.'s digital radio take off?

Posted: 22 Jan 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:digital radio? U.K. DAB technology? analog radio?

The U.K.'s Digital Radio Working Group (DWRG) has issued a report on how to promote the digital audio broadcasting (DAB) technology to component suppliers and radio makers to help boost sales of digital radios.

But the government-sponsored group's recommendations left many questions unanswered about the timescales for 'migrating' listeners to digital radio; and thus enabling the not-so hidden agenda of auctioning off the analog frequencies for other services. But in assuming the future was DAB the report failed to mention the elephant in the roomDAB+or any other digital radio platform.

For the bitter truth is that the U.K. is going out on a limb with DAB, a technology born in the 1990s and which many feel, in comparison with other technologies, is no longer good enough to make digital radio financially and commercially viable, mainly because of the crippling transmission costs involved.

DAB has the advantage of an existing infrastructure and consumer base in the U.K., largely created by the pioneering BBC. But DAB+ improves on the audio quality by adding AAC+ codecs and Reed-Solomon error correction. The reason many countries, including for instance Germany, Switzerland and Australia, decided to drop DAB and opt for an improved and updated standard, is because DAB+ has two to three times lower transmission costs since multiplexes can typically carry three times as many stations.

On the quality side of the argument, a telling comparison is that DAB+ ACC at 128Kbit/s, which is similar to Apple's iTunes, is bound to produce a superior listening experience to DAB's MPEG2-compatible format. Many who have bought DAB sets complain that radio stations sound worse on their new toy than FM on analog radios.

The U.K. got on the DAB bandwagon before many others, and there are now about 7 million sets out there. Moving to another standard would not be good public relations for the government.

Digital switch
All this is not to argue against a digital future for radio. Indeed we would have liked the DWRG to stick to the previous target that switching over to digital start by 2012. Instead, it suggests that switching to DAB should start by 2015 at the earliest, but is more likely to commence in 2017, and that analog transmission should not cease in the U.K. before 2020. This is less than impressive.

The report's timetable speaks of "trigger points" the most important of which is that the transition should not start until radio listening has passed a threshold of 50 percent "via digital platforms." Those digital platforms include free-to-air digital TV broadcast, broadband to PCs and netbooks, and the other giant elephants in the roomWi-Fi, Internet radio and mobile phones. The U.K. figure is currently 18.7 percent, and most observers believe it is realistic to expect the trigger point to be reached in 2015.

Regrettably, we can't identify one mobile phone available in the U.K. that incorporates DAB radio. More pertinently, even though DAB technology was originally pitched partly as a means to optimize in-car reception with the ability to send additional digital data, DAB radios have so far almost completely failed to penetrate the dashboard, again because of poor audio quality. The bottom line is that when it comes to spectrum efficiency, broadcasters' use of existing DAB frequencies is not efficient at all.

The whole scene has also become mired in politics, with the DRWG calling for a relaxation of regulatory burdens and for reception quality issues to be addressed by broadcasters. To make reception as robust as FM is now would require an expensive upgrading of existing DAB transmission networks.

Meanwhile many commercial stations have dipped a toe into DAB and then thrown in the towel because of the cost of transmitting DAB signals, so some kind of government subsidy would be needed to improve DAB. In current economic circumstances that seems unlikely. For chip suppliers, the DAB versus DAB+ argument is not such a crucial one, as they can mostly provide designs for either or both. Anthony Sethill, CEO of Frontier Silicon, the U.K.'s leading supplier of ICs and modules for digital radios thus welcomed the proposals, suggesting "as and when the government adopts the recommendations, we will see the success of digital TV repeated in radio within the next ten years."

Nonetheless, DAB+ has the chance to become a global standard, certainly a European standard, while DAB is becoming marginal. The success Sethill speaks of would be the greater, and the easier to achieve, with DAB+ as a U.K. digital radio platform.

- John Walko
EE Times Europe

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