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EU czar stomps into digital radio

Stone the Kroes

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Europe's digital radio sector is a not a happy place, as consumers vote with their wallets. It isn't just a DAB thing, which is a uniquely British disaster: the appetite for digital radio is similarly depressed all over the continent. And this is not good enough for Neelie Kroes, Europe's unelected digital czar.

"Some people even question the fact that we really need digital radio or claim that radio is 'a special case' which could exist forever on a combination of analogue and online services," she has told the Association for European Radio's annual conference. Kroes reminds us that "it is not for us in Brussels to dictate the pace or the way change should happen in this diverse sector".

Which is true. But that's not going to stop her chipping in. Why?

"My job is to help content providers scale up their offer [sic] at least to the Single Market size – and that cannot be done with FM analogue radio alone," she says.

There is hope then, for Alan Partridge – whose Mid Morning Matters may soon be heard in Latvia and Greece.

Kroes does, to her credit, admit there's a problem, saying, "we need to understand why the EU-wide consensus in 1986 that led to the technically impressive DAB standard has drifted to today’s inertia. Is it because digital radio is the new 'betamax'?"

She then goes on to cite the UK as an example of the potential of DAB. If only.

"How can radio best participate in convergence?" she wants to know. "What incentives would encourage user and manufacturers to shift to the digital format?

Kroes's intervention doesn't go much beyond exhorting her industry audience to do some creative thinking. Which really highlights the perils of top-down intervention: there's only so much you can do. Digital technology has fragmented the market for devices: digital radio is a variety of incompatible standards, while FM analog still works anywhere. But as she notes, the WorldDMB group is working on this. As she doesn't note, "harmonising" Europe's digital radio masts is too costly for Europe's radio industry to afford. And debt-encumbered governments don't see it as a priority.

Kroes compares the digital radio migration path to dial-up to broadband, and the introduction of GSM. But in each case consumers didn't need to be prodded into action. GSM took off because the economies of scale made mobile telephony affordable to the masses. Broadband took off because it was faster.

The problem with digital radio is that it doesn't really doesn't anything like as new or compelling. There are advantages, some are interesting, fun and useful. But there are costs, too. And the cost of paying for carriage over two infrastructures is crippling an industry that would be struggling to pay for one. Kroes's job is to promote anything with digital on the label. She forgets that many digital technologies end up in the fail bucket: digital audio tape, for example. And while our radio listening in the future most probably will be mostly digital one day, it may well be over IP, not purpose-built digital multiplexes.

Expect an enquiry. Or something. ®

Related link

Kroes: "Radio must not be left behind in the digital revolution"

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