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Gov: DAB must battle on, despite being old and rubbish

While BBC agrees to pay for digital albatross

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Britons' digital albatross, DAB radio, might be antique and sound terrible, the culture minister said this week, admitting the 2015 switchover date looked “ambitious”. It’s the first time a politician of ministerial level has acknowledged issues with DAB. But there’s no changing course, he said.

“They often suggest that DAB is an out-of-date technology, that coverage and sound quality are inferior to analogue and listeners are already happy with what they’ve got so why change?” noted Ed Vaizey. “There are of course elements of truth in all these statements,” he agreed, before stressing the positives.

Citing industry-sponsored research, Vaizey noted: “What really jumped out to me was that the majority of those who responded stated that they would not buy a car in the future without DAB radio. To me that highlights what consumers want, and what you as manufacturers and broadcasters are already beginning to provide.”

In a conference speech, Vaizey also said the 2015 target “looks ambitious”, and then invited the audience to consider several impossible things: “No one could predict 10 years ago the success of Apple, the domination of Google, profitability in social networking, particles travelling faster than the speed of light [sic]” – before calling for renewed faith in digital radio.

The BBC this week affirmed that it would pick up the tab for expanding DAB coverage – although nobody can say how much this will be.

Speaking at the same event, BBC’s radio chief Tim Davie (who is a rarity in the corporation, coming from a solid commercial background) said it would fund the further expansion of DAB coverage. The digital radio lobby claims that coverage is 86 per cent for national commercial digital channels, 90 per cent for national BBC channels, and lower (much lower, actually) for local digital stations. Davie vowed to take this from 90 to 97 per cent coverage.

It’s a measure of how far DAB has to go that Davie said the first priority was achieving “solid” coverage in the top 25 UK cities. But private estimates are much higher.

Only Arqiva has done any research. But Arqiva has some serious skin in this game, as the owner of the commercial multiplex Digital One (acquired from Global two years ago) and smaller regional muxes. The BBC opened 43 new transmitters in 2010 and 2011 with Arqiva as a subcontractor. Arqiva has guesstimated that expanding DAB coverage to reach the 97 per cent target would cost £100m. Private estimates are as high as 10 times that figure. ®

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