DAB Radio Switchover: Dead As The Dodo

In 2004, I wrote my first article predicting that the UK’s implementation of DAB digital radio was headed for failure. It was not guesswork. I had analysed radio industry data since 1980. I had worked  at The Radio Authority when it implemented DAB. I had worked  in Ofcom’s radio division. I had seen DAB from inside and outside the regulator and the commercial radio industry. Only five years after its launch, the available evidence demonstrated that DAB was headed for disaster in the UK.

I continued to write about DAB  –  in press articles, in analyst reports, in my blog, in my book ‘DAB Digital Radio: Licensed To Fail’  –  and to talk about DAB in radio and TV interviews. I did this not because I was ‘anti-DAB’ or a ‘campaigner’ (as some described me), but because my work as a media analyst requires me to carefully examine the facts and figures and to document their consequences. I had nothing to gain personally from stating evident truths.

Between 2004 and today, the UK radio industry could have scrutinised the growing collection of analyses that demonstrated DAB consumer take-up was failing. It could have taken firm, decisive action to transform DAB radio from failure to success. It chose not to. Instead, I found myself on the receiving end of abuse, slander and libel.

Two years ago, I stopped writing about UK radio in this blog because ‘Jimmy’s and ‘John’s were pasting my analyses into their press articles, blogs and corporate statements, uncredited and without permission. Those same people then e-mailed me to ask why I was no longer updating my blog!

I write today only to bookend this blog. In recent months, it has been interesting to witness some of my ‘critics’ make a 180-degree turn and suddenly herald the imminent non-event of DAB radio switchover, whilst citing my analyses (uncredited) in support of their newly adopted viewpoint.

I wrote about DAB because I consider that this single issue has contributed more to the decline of the UK radio industry than all other sector issues combined. Thousands of experienced radio professionals have lost their jobs. Hundreds of genuinely local radio stations have disappeared. Much radio in the UK has become a shadow of its former self. The medium is suffering rapidly declining appeal to those aged under 30. The industry that I have worked in since 1972 is on the rocks. Most of the blame for this sorry state of affairs can be laid directly at the UK radio industry’s single-minded pursuit of DAB since the 1990s, at the expense of all other objectives and at a cost of more than £1bn.

 

In 2011, I had been invited by the government’s Department of Culture, Media & Sport [DCMS] to participate in a consumer panel as part of its consultations about DAB switchover. Addressing an audience of industry stakeholders, I predicted that the government would kick the DAB radio switchover decision into the long grass in 2013. I made the same prediction in my presentation to the board of one of the UK’s largest commercial radio companies [see above].

After the close of the DCMS stakeholder session, its chairperson, a civil servant in the DAB radio switchover section, leaned over to me and said something along the lines of: “You really shouldn’t be writing the things you do. People don’t like it, you know, and it is making them angry.”

She is one of a select group of people in DCMS, Ofcom, Digital Radio UK, the BBC and RadioCentre who have earned their livings by pumping out factually incorrect reports supporting their fiction that DAB radio is a massive UK success story and that DAB switchover is inevitable. Public money and BBC Licence Fees have paid many of these people for years to mislead the public and the media about DAB radio.

Anyone with knowledge of the UK radio industry and training in statistics could have concluded from available data during the last decade that the implementation of DAB radio in the UK was headed for disaster. My analyses were not ‘rocket science’. What riled the army of DAB propagandists was that my published analyses directly contradicted their bullshit. The final e-mail sent to me by the chief executive of the Digital Radio Development Bureau (forerunner of Digital Radio UK) said:

“If you are going to deliberately mis-use the information we provide to you to construct as negative a view as possible with cheap shots like those below then we just won’t co-operate with you in the future.”

He saw only “cheap shots”, rather than evidential analysis, in my 2008 Q2 commercial radio sector report published by Enders Analysis, which had said:

“Although it remains the most popular platform for digital radio, ‘DAB’ usage seems to be steadfastly stuck at 9.0% of total commercial radio listening, dwarfed by the continued dominance of analogue radio (69.2%). Whilst 87% of households now have access to digital TV, and 67% have access to the internet, DAB penetration remained static at 27.3% in Q2 2008. Sales of DAB receivers have failed to continue the momentum demonstrated in Q1 2008, unit sales having slowed to 108,000 in June 2008, their lowest monthly level since June 2007. With sales of DAB receivers still concentrated mainly in the Christmas period, the imminent danger is that the hardware’s relatively high average ticket price, combined with the effects of the consumer ‘squeeze’, could impact the much needed winter 2008 sales peak (552,000 units sold in December 2007).

Despite the sterling efforts of the Digital Radio Working Group (convened by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) over the past eight months, the radio industry, as yet, seems no closer to finding an immediate solution to the problem of slow DAB take-up than it was a year ago. Although all parties agree that it is ’content’ that will drive consumers to purchase DAB radios, the major radio groups have still not unveiled any plans to stimulate the consumer market with new digital radio brands.”

Five years on, the numbers may have changed but the unresolved problems with DAB radio remain exactly the same. My analyses and predictions during the last decade have proven correct … while a small army of DAB propagandists have been paid handsomely during that time to produce a massive volume of ‘South Sea bubble’ hot air about DAB radio, partly paid for from public funds. Doubtless they will be rewarded for their failure.

Footnote: find out more in these selected writings on DAB radio:
Channel 4: Radio Ambitions Aim Too HighEnders Analysis, July 2007
The Future Of Digital Radio: Is It DAB?Enders Analysis, January 2008 
Tuned Into The Future Of Radio, Broadcast, June 2008
Channel 4 Radio: Six Feet UnderEnders Analysis, October 2008 
In The Ditch With DAB Radio, The Register, December 2008
Digital Radio In The UK: Progress And ChallengesEBU 3rd Digital Radio Conference, June 2009
Germans And Swiss Snub DAB, The Register, London, July 2009
‘Digital Britain’ And The Radio Sectoregta Radio Newsletter no.16, November 2009
DAB Is Dead, Index On Censorship, June 2010
DAB Digital Radio: Licensed To Fail, Radio Books, October 2010

Rubbish DAB radio reception: why is Ofcom working hard NOT to fix the problem?

“Ofcom’s primary concern in radio is to look after the interests of the listeners.”
Peter Davies, Ofcom, January 2007.

When something is broken, you have to fix it. Thinking about fixing it, planning to fix it, talking about fixing it, convening meetings about fixing it – none of these will actually fix it. You just have to fix it.

DAB radio reception has been broken since the broadcast platform was introduced in the 1990s. Transmitter powers are inadequate and there are insufficient transmitters, particularly in urban areas. These issues have still not been fixed.

For most of the last decade, the radio industry and the regulator were in denial that DAB reception was rubbish. Initially, it proved easy to blame the consumer. The advice to early DAB adopters was that they should install a DAB aerial on their roof and attach it to their new DAB radio because their home might be constructed of the wrong type of materials (bricks?). What? All this just to listen to Radio 7 in the bath?

Eventually, sufficient people had bought DAB radios that they started to compare experiences. People in the same street, the same family, the same house all found that they had similar problems with DAB reception.

In 2004, a technical paper entitled ‘Indoor Reception Of DAB’ by Simon Mason of NTL concluded that “a field strength of 71 dbμV/m is required in order to provide good indoor DAB reception to handheld devices.” Mason found that, in London, “the worse [sic] reception areas were, in every case, on the ground and first floors” of large buildings.

In 2006, at the TechCon conference, Ofcom’s Mark Thomas explained: “The Radio Authority had no data of how [DAB] receivers performed, so it had to make some very broad-brush assumptions. More recently, now that we have a lot of receivers in the market and we can see how they behave, an industry group has been working under Ofcom’s chairmanship for the last two years to look into the issue in more detail and come up with some modus operandi for new transmitter sites.”

At the same conference, EMAP’s Grae Allen
advocated: “In the future, as I envisage it, we will see a need to put more and more [DAB transmitter] sites inside the cities in areas where we actually need significant power where people are living and working.”

Did any of these ‘fixes’ happen? Only in London, and only for one of the four DAB multiplexes that serve the capital. Did Ofcom fix this? No. Did the radio industry pay for it? No. It was BT that paid for new DAB transmitters in London to improve the reception of its new mobile television service, Movio, which soon failed commercially. The DAB improvements were left in place.

As Mark Thomas had explained, it was the regulator (the Radio Authority, now Ofcom) that had set the technical criteria for DAB transmitters in the UK. So you might imagine that it would naturally be the regulator that would take responsibility to fix inadequate DAB reception. You would be wrong.

In 2010, Ofcom launched a consultation about the terms of its contract renewals for DAB multiplex licences. You might think that this would be the ideal opportunity for Ofcom to insist that licensees must improve the coverage of DAB transmitters so that consumers would receive satisfactory reception. You would be wrong.

Ofcom indirectly acknowledged that the current quality of DAB reception was the result of inadequate criteria having been implemented. It stated:

“Digital One’s [national DAB] network and all other existing DAB networks have been planned to a signal strength of 58 dBμV/m. This is what we currently call ‘outdoor’, or mobile, coverage.”

“A signal strength of 65 dBμV/m is what we currently call ‘indoor’, or portable, coverage. The network of 30 additional transmitters that Digital One implemented in order to facilitate the now-defunct BT Movio mobile television service were planned in order to deliver coverage in certain areas at a much higher signal strength of 82 dBμV/m.”

Evidently, BT had understood that you cannot hope to persuade consumers to spend their money on new equipment if they find that reception is not good enough to use it. Unfortunately, nobody in the radio sector took the hint. So what did Ofcom decide to do about this sorry state of affairs that has ruined so many listeners’ usage of DAB since 1999? Nothing at all. It said:

“In general, the coverage which applicants for radio multiplex licences propose to deliver has been seen as a commercial decision for the licensees, with neither Ofcom nor its predecessor regulator the Radio Authority seeking to impose a minimum coverage obligation that an applicant’s proposals must meet …” [emphasis added]

This decision was made, despite Ofcom having already convened meetings of an “ad-hoc working group” that had included the BBC, the government and the DAB multiplex licensees. The outcome was:

“This group came to a provisional agreement that the field strengths currently used for determining coverage are no longer appropriate given operators’ experience after several years of operation. The group provisionally agreed that a revised set of appropriate field strengths should be used from now on …”

This group’s new recommended signal strengths for adequate DAB reception were:
* 58 dBμV/m for outdoor reception;
* 69 dBμV/m for indoor reception;
* 77 dBμV/m for indoor reception in dense urban areas.

So it would make perfect sense for Ofcom to insist upon these agreed new field strengths in the new contracts for DAB multiplexes that will run for a further 12 years. But to Ofcom, it did not. Ofcom simply said to multiplex owners: just carry on as if nothing is at all wrong with DAB reception. In Ofcom’s words:

“We are not proposing to set any additional coverage obligations that Digital One must meet as part of the [national DAB multiplex] licence renewal process” and “we will not set any additional coverage obligations for local [DAB] radio multiplex licensees as part of the process of licence renewal …”

Perhaps Ofcom should explain precisely how its policy on DAB reception quality is working “to look after the interests of listeners.” The story to date seems to look like this:
* When DAB was introduced, the regulator got its technical sums wrong.
* Poor quality reception dogged DAB from the beginning.
* The regulator ignored the problem.
* The radio industry knew this was a problem.
* The regulator still ignored the problem.
* Belatedly, the industry came up with better DAB technical parameters.
* Implementing those new parameters would cost it lots of money.
* Belatedly, the regulator acknowledged the problem.
* The regulator refused to accept responsibility for having created the problem.
* The regulator refused to take responsibility for fixing the problem.
*The regulator said it was a “commercial decision for the licensees” to fix the problem.
*The regulator renewed existing DAB multiplex licences to prolong the problem for a further 12 years.

Maybe Peter Davies’ earlier quote should be amended to:

“Ofcom’s primary concern in DAB radio is to stick two fingers up to all those radio listeners who, since 1999, have spent money buying a DAB radio, taken it home, and found that reception is too poor to use it.”