Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/06/dab_fail/

DAB: A very British failure

Taxpayers to subsidise the digital radio flop?

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 6th March 2008 15:49 GMT

Emergency talks to save digital radio are taking place in Manchester today, the FT reports. Unloved, unviable, and often unlistenable, DAB is a technology the public clearly doesn't want; so it comes as no surprise to learn that coercion will be used to persuading the public to get on board. With DAB, we're expected to pay for the stick that beats us up.

DAB has been a very British failure. While the specification is almost 20 years old, and (just about) adequate, bureaucracy and regulatory greed left British listeners with an experience far short of the "CD quality" sound they were promised.

Digital radio has been expensively promoted by both the BBC and Ofcom - both of whom have deeply vested interests in the digital switchover. And the vested interests range far and wide, too - media companies have digital stations of their own, and prefer cross-promoting their investments in their publications to reporting the subject frankly. Meanwhile, analogue radio remains Briton's best-loved and most popular medium, a survey confirmed this week, with 100m analogue sets in use - compared to 6.5m DAB receivers.

Finally, GCap blew the whistle on the charade two weeks ago, when it announced that it was canning two of its DAB stations.

"We do not believe that - with its current cost structure and infrastructure - [DAB] is an economically viable platform," the commercial broadcaster said.

The FT reports that secret crisis talks are taking place in Manchester today to try and make digital radio more attractive to commercial broadcasters. Coercion of one form or another seems high on the agenda, however.

One idea is to make the analogue receivers obsolete overnight, by withdrawing BBC broadcasts from analogue radio. Want the Beeb? Go out and buy a new set.

Running down analogue has also spawned dozens of thriving community FM stations, which provide a stark contrast to government-backed "community empowerment" programs based on web technologies such as social networking. These stations also embarrass the BBC, whose own lacklustre local radio stations too often appear to serve as a home for washed-up Alan Partridges. When given the choice, people prefer listening to real people, rather than the patronising "local" voice of the BBC.

Another idea cited is to use our own money for more digital propaganda. The FT reports that the BBC has a £250m spare license payers' cash, in the kitty handed to it for digital radio:

"Another radical idea would be to use public money to support a huge switchover advertising campaign - and subsidies for elderly and low-income families to buy new radios - in the same way that as has happened in aiding the switch-over to digital television," the paper reports.

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. ®