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DAB: A very British failure

Taxpayers to subsidise the digital radio flop?

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Digital handicaps

Commercial digital radio operators are handicapped in three ways. The BBC receives a large public subsidy (£800m) for creating its DAB stations, and doesn't have to show a commercial return while it builds up these digital audiences. And incredibly, when commercial operators win a bid for a license, they have to hand the "penthouse suite" - the portion of the multiplex with the best audio capability - to the BBC. Who'd be a commercial digital operator, with these constraints?

Shrewder countries looked at DAB and stalled, preferring to wait for more modern technologies to emerge. (Based on MPEG2, the DAB spec was nailed down almost 20 years ago; DAB+ offers far superior sound quality in the equivalent spectrum.) Officially, the regulator Ofcom wants to make sure at least half the country can receive the older, obsolete DAB before exploring DAB+, which is incompatible with the older sets.

So where's the regulator in all this, you're wondering - isn't Ofcom in the business of allowing markets to flourish (it says so often enough) and ensuring high quality technology platforms are in place? Alas, Ofcom has its own agenda. Ofcom wants as many digital multiplexes as it can possibly cram in - and wants to turn off analogue as soon as it can.

That's because Ofcom fancies itself as something rather more than a light-touch regulator, of course. It wants to raise a digital windfall from selling analogue TV and radio spectrum that's potentially worth billions. Which it can then parcel out to its chums - the £150m-a-year "Nathan Barley Quango" being a good example. Think of Milo Minderbender, the mess officer in Catch-22, and you're on the right lines.

But while the DAB lobby stalls on implementing DAB+, an ominous statistic appears in Wiggins' survey of media consumption, published this week, and reported here.

53 per cent of homes have Wi-Fi, compared to 23 per cent who have a DAB radio. With ever-shrinking technology able to pipe the world's radio stations to a small wearable device via 802.11, the DAB lobby needs to come up with something really attractive: faced with infinite choice, you need high-quality, at the very least.

Presuming that we're morons, and berating us for our stupidity, can't be an option for much longer, surely. ®

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