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DAB: The View From the Bubbling Mudbath

In defence of British digital radio

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These are troubled times for DAB, with the UK's go-it-alone strategy getting a mauling from analysts, the press and from Reg readers. But it's only fair to get the view from inside the industry. Nick Piggott is chief techie at GCap, with a decade's experience in developing and implementing the technology.

GCap is the UK's biggest radio broadcaster, operating Classic FM, Xfm national stations and over 40 local stations. It recently grabbed the headlines when it announced it was cutting back on its DAB broadcasting, although it apparently shelved plans to abandon DAB altogether.

Nick's argument is that DAB is here, the broadcasters are using it, and there's nothing else that can do the job as well for low-power, low-cost reception - particularly when mobile.

Of course, there's not much GCap can do about the regulatory decisions that have shaped the market, and remember that the buck stops with Ofcom. Which then throws the buck out of the window. (Be careful when strolling along Southwark Bridge Road.)

Piggott constantly stressed that while much of the industry is sympathetic to listeners' frustrations, we're at the tail end of the first ten years of implementation. The codecs were licensed for ten years, and the back-end equipment was bought with ten or more years in mind.

Bubbling mud

So first off, DAB+. With Germany ending its ten year "experiment" with DAB in favour of DAB+ next year - when will we get the superior tech?

Nick views DAB+ as a beautiful and elegant implementation that should delight any engineer.

"The codecs we use today were state of the art in 1999. The latest codecs are astounding. These have been added to DAB+ so bubbling mud should no longer be a problem. Bubbling mud kicks in when the error rate is 1 in 1000; 1 in 100 means the bubbling is unlistenable."

But he says that a DAB+ move wouldn't necessarily translate into a gain for broadcasters:

"If all the radio stations adopted DAB+ and took the opportunity to reduce their capacity, it wouldn't save them any money. The cost of the infrastructure doesn't change, as they have the same transmitters, links, and headend costs, and the proportion used by each operator is the same. So the price stays the same - but 66 per cent of the multiplex goes empty."

"If new stations come on-air in the free space, then obviously the cost gets divided across a larger number of stations, and everyone would pay a little less, but in most cases (outside of London) the multiplexes already have a bit of free space, so it's unlikely there would suddenly be new companies entering the radio business and paying for capacity."

What vexes people is that DAB radios being bought today in the UK are not future proof, although the sets arriving this year for the (larger) German market are. Countries that came late to digital radio can take advantage of the latest technology.

Nick said there were massive inventory issues for the retail channel. If DAB+ was announced today, then nobody would buy a DAB radio.

I replied that since that day was inevitable, postponing it would merely add to the sense of the public having been swindled.

But that's something only Ofcom can decide. And the longer it stalls, the longer the problem festers.

What about audio quality, we wondered?

"We can have high quality, eg Classic FM, but through satellite and cable. It's not for a kitchen top radio. But these sets aren't capable of Hi-fi quality anyway."

The proposition behind DAB was never about better sound quality, he stresses, but choice, program data and the extra services.

We agreed that the data potential of digital radio had barely been tapped, he saw a lot of opportunity for new services, with public transport information a no-brainer.

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