Talking DAB and the future of radio
Tony Moretta on the switchover 'scare'
Interview DAB radio usually gets a flailing from Reg readers, and that was before this summer's "switch-off" controversy. Former FreeView chief Tony Moretta has the job of steering the DAB ship through such controversies as head of the Digital Radio Development Bureau, and here's an extended Q&A with him conducted recently.
The Switchoff Scare that wasn't
Recently there's all this scaremongering about switch-off. But no one has said that - Digital Britain doesn't set a switch-off date. It says if you get digital listening to 50 per cent - and you've got to solve a lot of problems to get to that 50 per cent - you've got to think about switch-off. By the time you get to a switch off most people won't be listening on analog.
But a switch-off when digital listening reaches 50 per cent means broadcasters lose half their audience overnight.
No, it isn't set at that point. It says when we get to 50 per cent, we'll set a date. It's like TV, when they set a timetable for TV digital switchover, penetration was 50 to 60 per cent. By the time switchover happens, you've got to 90 per cent. And the message is a small proportion still haven't switched over to digital TV yet - the elderly for example. So no one's set a switch off date.
So how do you envision it happening?
The earliest you can start is six and a half years away. The challenge for the industry is get to 50 per cent. We should have seen it coming as an industry, but it's easier for the press to focus on what you're taking away.
I agree Carter didn't set a switch-off date. The difficult thing for digital is that people were reminded that analog is really a great technology. It's cheap, it's ubiquitous...
The cost is negligible. We've just agreed a specification for DAB radios going forward, in that we will set a date that all new radios will come as Profile 1. One of the optional things is FM - but we're saying to manufacturers that all the radios should come with FM. The incremental cost is nothing. If you talk to the big radio companies, analog is not very good for commercial radio. There are five national FM radio frequencies and commercial is only allowed one of them. AM is fine for Talksport, as it's speech, but not for commercial radio. There's enough room on DAB for them.
OK, so why aren't they there - is it carriage cost?
Most of them are there already but yes, it's cost. In this economy you can't have a go at radio stations for not launching new stations - you wait until things improve. In London you have 53 stations - all the mainstream stuff, plus things like Planet Rock which has 800,000 listeners. There's a Polish radio station. There's enough content out there.
DAB has three levels of multiplex coverage: local, regional and national. Commercial radio is quite rooted in local and regional for revenue reasons, and it's hard to jump to national. Also, some stations sit on local multiplexes but are national brands, like Q and Heat. You want to make sure they have the right stations in the right areas.
The costs for the national multiplex are about million a year?
That's a reasonable ballpark figure. Digital costs are the same or less than analog. But you're paying both while you're running both. Going forward, DAB is out on a national basis, Digital One is not far off.
There seems to be no simple way to reduce this.
The way transmission contracts work generally is that most of the cost is incurred when it's built. It's getting the site, putting antennas up on the mast - transmitters are the boxes in the building at the bottom, I learned in my last job - it's the manpower. So the transmission company invests the capital and then the broadcaster gets a 10 or 12 or 20 year contract. It's like getting a mortgage - so the network's built, it's there. And it stays built. When ITV Digital went bust, the network was still there. So Arquiva want to cover their costs, they're able to make more reasonable deals to get people on the network and they're doing that.
Digital costs are the same or less than analog. But you're paying both while you're running both.
The Curse of the Bubbling Mud
What about reception quality - the bubbling mud? How can that be improved?
We need to increase the power, we need to make sure the reception is stronger, I think that will get rid of some of the preconceptions of audio quality. If you switch the radio on and it's garbled, you're not going to think 'I'm on the edge of a multiplex's coverage' - you're going to think 'it doesn't work'.
Do I think there's a fundamental issue with audio quality? No. There's an in-building reception issue, but generally in terms of population coverage, it's about there. The BBC will need to expand. We need to turn the power up and fill in the gaps.
One of my big bugbears is when people talk about audio quality with DAB, it's differentiating between what it is in a good signal area… and error correction comes in - that's a reception quality issue not an audio quality issue.
We've done a questionnaire of about 7,000 people - it's probably skewed to techies and audiophiles. What that clearly showed is that people had a bigger issue with reception quality.
OK, but how much better could it be with more efficient codecs? We were promised 'CD quality audio' back in the 90s
Mistakes were made in the early days when they talked about CD quality sound. It's like Freeview, anything where you have a fixed capacity you have to strike a balance. You fit less on, so broadcasters pay more.
Why not mandate DAB+?
With DAB+ you can get better audio quality, or you can use a third of the capacity to get the same audio quality. Or a station might just decide to buy a third of the capacity. If I genuinely thought audio quality was a real issue for consumers, I'd be banging on the doors of my shareholders, but I really don't think it is.
But the efficiency benefits are very real
Yes, it could create more capacity. But capacity isn't an issue at the moment. Going back to the transmission costs, it's not automatically cheaper. Arquiva has the same costs. Today, there's spare capacity on Digital One and on the regional multiplexes.
It's a bit better, but it doesn't really move the game along - we will still need power increases. And the disadvantages are that the radios won't work. It'll destroy confidence.
Now I'd like every radio to be sold to be Profile 1. Maybe by the middle of next year, or by next Xmas, every DAB set will be Profile 1 compliant, or you can upgrade it over the air. There may come a point where you want to launch a new station and the market has enough DAB+ stations and you can mix and match, but… there's no strong reason for doing it now. The people it matters to are not a big enough market. If you want better quality you listen to your TV or get internet radio.
DAB in your car
Last summer I got a car with a factory fit DAB - I'd just got this job. I've been doing a lot more driving. I drove from the Isle of Wight to Herfordshire, we were listening to Fun kids on DigitalOne and the BBC - and I had one two second glitch somewhere on the A3. It sounded fine. The day of the Today program I drove from Hertfordshire to Oxford Circus and back again - in that whole journey there was one glitch, where it always is: a set of traffic lights on the Finchley Road.
In my wife's car around the M25 I got a lot of interference with FM, and it annoyed me having to retune.
Better hardware... and WiFi
You can buy an Argos DAB radio for £24.99 but we think that needs to be down to £15 to £20. If you're looking at a Phillips branded DAB set you're looking at £50. Customers need better information and better marketing.
Where we're seeing a lot of growth is microsystems with DAB. Selling more. We've seen loads of manufacturers coming into it. Gear4 and Altec Lansing are bringing out DAB sets with iPod docks. Yamaha are coming back into the market. There's some nice kit coming out - new Philips and new Sonys are there.
We need better adapters. People talk about the Pure Highway car adapter, but cars are also getting Bluetooth fitted as standard, that will help. But also SatNavs. TrafficMaster have found they can push 30 to 40 times the data over the DAB TPEG [data path] than they can with analog RDS. It's another example of how moving to digital can let you do different things.
And you're not worried about WiFi?
I'd love every DAB radio to have WiFi- for that return path. But a lot of retailers are reducing their WiFi radio stocks because they're not selling; 40,000 were sold last year, and that includes DAB sets with WiFi. That's 6,000 a month. What the retailers are seeing is that people aren't buying standalone WiFi radios.
It's almost a decade since the Psion Wavefinder and we wrote at the time how that data capability could be exploited. It never has been really...
We haven't as an industry been able to paint a picture of what you can do with digital radio.
When some people hear data the first reaction is to put a web browser in the device. But people won't sit there staring at their radio. One of the good things about radio is that it's one of the few media that you can do while doing something else.
Over the next few months you will get a colour touch screen DAB radios - and it's so if you're doing something and hear a competition, or an advert, you don't want to interact with it then but you can tag something you hear for later. It could be a competition or an advertisement. The radio knows exactly what station you were listening to, at what time, the station will know what was being broadcast, so later on that day, you can get email. People will see you can't do that on an FM radio.®