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Fixing the UK's DAB disaster

Beyond the bubbling mud

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One of the main reasons why GCap Media chief executive Fru Hazlitt labelled DAB as being "not an economically viable platform" was due to its high transmission costs. DAB+ is up to three times cheaper to transmit, because multiplexes can carry three times as many stations. The cost of conversion to DAB+ would be minimal as well, because DAB+ stations would be transmitted on existing DAB multiplexes, so there's no need to build an expensive new transmitter network.

A licence to deceive

Despite DAB+ solving DAB's numerous problems, Ofcom has scuppered any hopes of seeing it anytime soon. Channel 4 has made a serious investment in digital radio, and wanted to use DAB+ for stations on its national DAB multiplex, due to launch later this year. But light-touch regulator Ofcom wouldn't let them, and Channel 4 was ordered to use DAB instead.

However, which format is used on the Channel 4 national multiplex may have become a moot point, as it might not be launching at all - most of the broadcaster's executives are reportedly opposed to the £100m move into digital radio. Executives are aware that splurging on digital radio would make a mockery of the broadcaster's request to receive a share of the BBC's TV licence fee money, on the basis that they're supposedly skint.

What Ofcom is scared of is that if DAB+ stations were launched today there would be complaints from a few luddites who think technology should stand still forever. But the introduction of DAB+ would not lead to them losing any existing stations, or at least not for some time, and the irony is that DAB stations have been closing down left, right, and centre anyway.

Ofcom should simply have explained to consumers that their DAB radios won't stop working the moment DAB+ stations launch. A green light for DAB+ would also have forced the receiver manufacturers to convert their existing models to support DAB+, and that would have accelerated the transition over to the new standard.

But what Ofcom has actually achieved is giving an excuse for the receiver manufacturers to delay building new DAB+ models. The broadcasters have been misleading the public into thinking that DAB+ will never be used in the UK, so we continue buying non-upgradeable DAB radios that will all need to be replaced a few years down the line. No one seems to be able to grasp the nettle.

Future proofing the radio

There are a few DAB+ models on sale today, and the manufacturers will be releasing a wide range of receivers later this year in time for new markets in Australia, Switzerland, and Germany, who are all starting to use the new standard. But it's unlikely that there will be any DAB+ stations launched in the UK before 2010 to 2011, and even then it will take a few years to complete the transition. By which time DAB+ will be as outdated as DAB is today.

If the broadcasters want DAB to continue being the main digital radio platform, they could live to regret taking the slow route to DAB+, because listening to internet radio is set to grow quickly on the back of the iPlayer.

The BBC has finally said it's going to start using new audio formats - very likely AAC or AAC+ - for its live and on-demand radio streams in July and April, respectively. This means they should overtake DAB in terms of quality. The BBC has actually had the opportunity to use AAC+ for its radio streams ever since Real Networks added support for the codec to Real Player 10/RealAudio 10 in January 2004, and it wouldn't have cost the BBC a penny in licensing costs to use it.

Which begs the question: has the BBC actually delayed using AAC+ in order to give the failing DAB system a helping hand? We can but speculate, but it's a concern that the BBC's "all platforms" strategy and supposedly web-friendly mission has a blind spot when it comes to internet radio.

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