Why radio's grand plan has me tuning out
A Digital Britain is looking further away as the global radio industry adopts multiple digital formats and FM and the internet enter a golden age
You wouldn't normally know there was a fight going on in the UK's radio industry: in public, they all want to keep smiling, because it discourages awkward questions. It was therefore brave of Scott Taunton, head of TalkSport's parent, UTV Radio GB, to break ranks by speaking out in an interview in last week's MediaGuardian.
Like the little boy who noticed the emperor had no clothes, Taunton pointed out the obvious about the industry's desire to move to DAB digital radio and switch off FM in six years, as outlined in Lord Carter's Digital Britain report: "I don't think there is anyone who genuinely believes 2015 is realistic," he said.
Worse, he pointed out that moving to the more efficient DAB+ system (more stations, better sound, lower transmission costs) had the problem that almost all the DAB sets in UK homes can't receive it. "The future at the moment is FM," he said. "The next generation is about iPhones with FM receivers."
Taunton is obviously not the first to point to these problems. What makes it shocking is that he represents a leading industry company that has invested in DAB – not some minor commercial broadcaster, analyst or journalist.
So is this a trend? Will other broadcasters follow UTV's lead or will they close ranks? Was Taunton flying a kite, or was it the fallout from a personality clash? UTV has quit the industry body, RadioCentre, making its displeasure plain. The worst case scenario – probably discussed around the watercoolers – is that the radio industry wants to change course. With the decline in commercial radio revenues and the BBC under increasing pressure, perhaps the investment Carter requires in expanding digital radio coverage is no longer worth the concessions on offer.
But while the chitchat continues, the global radio industry is heading for chaos due to the range of digital formats being adopted. Briefly, most people were happy backing DAB, until DAB – globally – failed. So, in 2006, the World DAB Forum changed its name to WorldDMB and agreed a new global standard, DAB+, which would make everything all right again. Or not.
The UK radio industry still wants DAB, it says, but Australia is going for DAB+. Germany is turning off DAB at the end of the year and may go to DAB+. Sweden's broadcasters asked for DAB+ but their government reckons it's cheaper and more efficient to use the TV network, DVB-T2. France has picked T-DMB, but may change its mind. And so on. For a running commentary on the various international twists and turns, read Grant Goddard's radio blog.
There are also at least two more approved European standards. One is DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale), which is being upgraded to DRM+. The other is SDR (Satellite Digital Radio), which is similar to the systems used in the US and South Korea.
Confused? You should be. Everybody recognises that global standards are required so that designers and their (usually Asian) manufacturer can increase production volumes, drive down prices, and deliver devices that consumers can use anywhere. Only compatible technologies can enable competition on content. Instead, nations are acting like minor fiefdoms, making long-term decisions based on arbitrary local conditions.
This might be OK if there were no alternatives. However, most people in the UK can also get digital radio via DVB-T, in the form of a £20 Freeview set-top box. On Freeview, 20 digital radio stations take up far less space than one HDTV channel. Other households get a digital radio option via their cable or satellite TV supplier.
Most people in the UK can also get global standard digital radio streamed over the internet. At the moment, most listen using their PCs, but standalone Wi-Fi radios are getting cheaper and easier to "tune". A Wi-Fi radio can be plugged in anywhere there's a Wi-Fi signal. It offers access to many thousands of stations from all over the world – including the BBC's national and local stations – and lets listeners create their own "stations" using services such as Spotify, last.fm and (if available) Pandora.
Internet radio's sound quality can be much higher than DAB or even DAB+. Indeed, someone with an 8Mbps internet connection could listen to about 100 DAB-quality radio stations at once. The problem, of course, is getting the internet to a car driver, a commuter, or someone just walking down the street. However, that should be practicable using either WiMax (a souped-up long range Wi-Fi) or the next generation of mobile broadband, known as LTE (Long Term Evolution).
While broadcasters watch rival digital platforms for signs that listeners are actually adopting them, sales of FM receivers grow faster than those of DAB sets.
It has become increasingly difficult to buy a DAB radio that doesn't have FM as well. Also, FM radios are becoming common in MP3 players, mobile phones and other portable devices, just as Taunton said. The radio industry analyst Grant Goddard agrees: "For me, the main benefit of radio has always been its portability, and perhaps we're entering a boom time for radio on portable devices."
This is a global phenomenon. Key decisions are being taken in China, South Korea and Taiwan, in Finland and the US, not in London. A golden age of FM and internet radio is the last thing DAB's backers need with a 2015 target in mind.http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/organgr ... n-troublesкорявый перевод