DAB Outlook in UK Remains Unsettled

January 9, 2012

The ongoing controversy on the state of DAB in the United Kingdom continues to unfold, as recent passage of a Digital Economy by parliament stoked speculation that a previously published benchmark for switching off analog services may have been premature.

On the positive side, the UK Digital Radio Development Bureau, a trade-funded organization with a mission to support growth of DAB, reports that more than 10 million digital receivers, representing roughly 15 percent of British households, have been sold to date. In addition, public acceptance of the technology seems to be positive overall, while a key report (Digital Britain white paper) issued in June calling for the shutdown of national FM analog services in 2015 garnered worldwide attention.

But there are also some indications that DAB may not achieve its penetration targets as soon as hoped. Critics of the technology perennially cite two issues as stumbling blocks:

The MPEG Layer 2 codec that remains embedded as a legacy of DAB's 10-year rollout. While DAB+ and other DMB systems now employ a vastly improved codec based on AAC, officials in the UK are hamstrung by the fact that most of the DAB sets sold to date are not upgradeable, leaving officials to fear that an attempt to make the transition to DAB+ now could mortally wound the digital transition's forward momentum.

The question of DAB coverage versus cost. Due to the advanced technology required to support them, the sheer number of multiplex transmission sites needed to replicate analog FM coverage substantially raises operating costs for both BBC and commercial stations now moving on to digital. For commercial operators in particular, those costs come as their industry suffers a severe downturn in the advertising market, with some holding short of committing to DAB as a result.

A summary of a recent study published by Research and Markets indicates that a number of other factors may be acting to prevent DAB's uptake from accelerating into a typical adoption curve. Authored by Grant Goddard and titled "Digital Radio In The UK: Progress & Challenges," a report summary points to the following impediments:

  • Lack of UK consumer awareness of digital radio
  • The UK radio industry audience metric is limited to linear (analog) radio
  • The significant volume of legacy FM radio receivers
  • The declining UK market for radio receivers
  • The slowdown of DAB radio receiver sales volumes in the UK
  • The dominance of the mobile phone market by FM radio receivers
  • The existing universal and robust UK coverage by FM radio transmission
  • Lack of a financial incentive for FM switch off
  • The delayed rollout of local DAB multiplexes
  • Lack of common geographical coverage between existing DAB networks

    Although the report marks the UK as the world's single-most-developed example of digital radio, it suggests that given the current linear growth line in DAB receiver sales, achievement of even a 50 percent penetration level may not happen within the time frame specified in the Digital Britain report.

    A Nov. 20 article by Emma Barnett in the UK Telegraph suggests the recently passed Digital Economy Bill poses fresh fodder for speculation along that line, since it contains no date for an analog to DAB transition, focusing instead on steps to prepare the way for an eventual transition. Absence of the 2015 date in the current legislation is prompting charges of a government about face by pundits.

    But the UK isn't alone in finding its digital transition a fitful process. In Germany, where an earlier DAB rollout was abandoned in favor of waiting for improved DAB+ technology, commercial broadcasters are now resisting the release of funds for implementing the system there. And a report by Pascale Paoli Lebailly in RapidTV News this week claims that French commercial radio operators RTL, Europe 1, NRJ Group and Next Radio TV (RMC & BFM ) are walking away from a planed transition to digital terrestrial radio (DTR) via DMB multiplexes now coming online in Pairs, Marseille and Nice.

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