Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/14/ceg_digital_radio_consumer_report/

Consumer group slams Britain's digital radio switchover

Biased and unrealistic, Department told

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 14th September 2010 09:53 GMT

Exclusive A report out later today prepared for the government blasts the radio industry and government for "scaring" consumers into an unrealistic timetable for digital switchover, and recommends both an urgent and impartial examination of DAB costs and benefits, and new criteria for a digital switchover.

It's quite damning stuff.

2015 is far too early, says the Consumer Expert Group in its report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport today entitled Digital Radio Switchover: what is in it for consumers? to start the switchover process. The Group advises that any switchover should only occur when analog radio listening has fallen to 30 per cent of total listening - the current trigger is 50 per cent of "digital" - and says there is far more to do than the radio industry or current policy appreciates.

Low cost DAB sets aren't the answer, the Group notes.

"Lower priced digital sets tend to come with lower sound quality and less functionality, both of which are cited as consumer benefits of digital radio. Rather than providing for a digital radio ‘upgrade’, such strategies will result in consumers ‘downgrading’ their listening experience by trading in good quality analogue radios for bottom of the range digital versions."

They're also hard to use.

A full cost-benefit analysis needs to be undertaken, the report recommends. The public has not been given "accurate and impartial" advice it adds. Audiophiles may take heart from the recommendation that "emphasis should not be placed on driving down costs unless the sound quality and functionality of cheaper DAB sets are at least equal to analogue". It's also asked that plans for future radio include DAB+, and that DAB sets should be future-proofed with DAB+ compatible chipsets "as a matter of urgency".

"Consumer benefits need to be clear and demonstrable," the report adds.

Cheap and nasty

The Group was set up in 2003 to advise on consumer issues around the digital TV switchover. Following the Carter Report - the blueprint for the Digital Economy Act - it was asked to examine the digital radio switchover too. It found that the government's previous "expert document", whose recommendations were largely incorporated into Carter, was "industry led" - referring to the DRWG (Digital Radio Working Group) recommendations at the end of 2008.

Since then, "the consumer proposition has stagnated", the CEG notes.

The CEG group wants platform criteria to be more honest. The recommendation that switchover preparations start when "digital listening" reaches 50 per cent is not helpful, it says. "The take-up criterion should compare like-for-like listening platforms and as such measure DAB listening only."

It also shoots down the argument that if we don't move to DAB, then maintaining the UK's FM infrastructure will be just as expensive.

"Evidence given to the CEG shows that there are no economic or technical barriers to FM continuing as a broadcast platform. As the levels of investment required for continuing on FM or moving to a DAB platform are so similar, the difference financially between either course of action would be minimal."

The Group's report gives the new coalition government the opportunity to rescue a digital radio policy that's been largely authored by two lobbies - the DAB radio and commercial radio - but that's deeply unpopular with the public. ®