Criteria and a date for digital radio switchover: where’d they go?

When will the UK government’s proposed ‘digital radio switchover’ happen? For a long time, we had always been told that the pre-requisites were:
• market criteria that had to be reached before switchover could be announced;
• a fixed, single date for switchover to happen.

So both of these must be in the Digital Economy Bill somewhere, surely? Well, it seems that everything (except the Bill itself) points to 2015 as the switchover date. But as for the criteria?

The government’s press release of 20 November 2009 announcing the Digital Economy Bill stated:
• “Digital radio: update the regulatory framework to prepare for moves to digital switchover for radio by 2015”.

The government’s accompanying Factsheet of 20 November 2009 stated:
• “At the centre of our ambition is the delivery of a Digital Radio Upgrade programme by the end of 2015.”

The government’s accompanying Impact Assessments of 20 November 2009 referred to:
• “a switchover to digital radio by 2015”
• “a switchover to digital only radio by 2015”
• “a Digital Radio Upgrade programme, which should be completed by the end of 2015”.

However, the government’s Explanatory Notes to the Digital Economy Bill said:
• nothing about criteria that have to be met;
• nothing explicitly about a switchover date.

Published on 20 November 2009, the Digital Economy Bill itself contained nothing about:
• criteria that have to be met;
• an explicit date for digital radio switchover.

What? Is this not strange? Somewhere along the way, it seems as if the agreed criteria and the switchover date just vanished into thin air. So what happened? Let’s go back and follow the timeline of how we got to where we are now.

JUNE 2008
The Interim Report of the government’s Digital Radio Working Group recommended:
• “Government should agree a set of criteria and timetable for the migration to digital.
• These criteria should include an assessment of:
      * The percentage of listening to DAB enabled devices;
      * Current and planned coverage of DAB and FM; and
• In considering the case for migration we expect the Government will also want to consider the take-up of digital radio in cars, affordability, functionality, and an environmental impact plan.”

The Final Report of the Digital Radio Working Group recommended:
• “Three broad criteria that must be met in order to trigger the digital migration process:
     * That at least 50% of total radio listening is to digital platforms;
     * That national multiplex coverage will be comparable to FM coverage by time of digital migration;
     * That local multiplexes will cover at least 90% of the population and, where practical, all major roads ….”
• “Government should announce a date for digital migration, ideally two years after the criteria have been met”.

The Interim Report of the government’s Digital Britain recommended:
• “We will create a plan for digital migration of radio, which the Government intends to put in place once the following criteria have been met:
     * When 50% of radio listening is digital;
     * When national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90% of population and all major roads.”

JUNE 2009
The Final Report of Digital Britain recommended:
• “The delivery of a Digital Radio Upgrade programme by 2015”
• “Included within the Digital Radio Upgrade timetable is our intention that the criteria should be met by the end of 2013”:
     * “When 50% of listening is to digital; and
     * When national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90% of the population and all major roads”

This Report also included a critically important graph (see below) which, it said, “shows the projected digital share of listening under two scenarios: organic growth and with a concerted drive to digital”.

Shockingly, the historical data in this graph had been ‘doctored’ to make it look as if the faster growth path advocated by Digital Britain was easily achievable [confusingly, the key on this graph labels the lines round the wrong way]. When I queried the source of this false data, the government told me it had been supplied by another party, which I later found to be a report produced by the Digital Radio Development Bureau, but not made public.

Digital Britain’s graph sought to demonstrate that continuation of the current growth trend in digital listening would lead to the 50% criterion being achieved in early 2015, whereas the actual data (from RAJAR) in my graph shows the 50% criterion not being reached until the end of 2018 [the trend line here is automatically generated by Microsoft Excel from all available quarterly data].

Digital Britain proposed policies to accelerate DAB take-up which, it said, would ensure that the 50% criterion would be achieved by year-end 2013, a gain of a little over one year from its natural trend. However, in my graph that uses RAJAR data, the acceleration necessary is shown to be five years, not one year, which would prove an almost impossible task to achieve [I wrote about the false data in June 2009].

Between the publication of the Digital Britain final report in June 2009 and today, it has slowly dawned on some of radio’s stakeholders that the agreed criteria necessary for digital radio switchover stand zero chance of being achieved by 2013. Neither do they stand a chance of being achieved by 2014 or 2015, nor probably by 2016. It always was pie in the sky, wishful thinking, fiction rather than fact. The manipulation of key data in a significant government report only demonstrates the duplicity.

So, what to do about it now? Admit you were wrong? Admit your culpability? Best to simply pretend that the criteria and the proposed switchover date never really mattered. Botched data – ignore it. Unrealistic targets – lose them. Perhaps nobody will notice the whole, sorry deception.

In the here and now, Digital Radio UK (the new organisation responsible for implementing DAB) explains the current thinking:
• “The [Digital Economy] Bill does not set a definite date for digital radio switchover …”
• “The Government has stated that switchover will not happen until the majority of radio listening is to digital, and until anyone who can currently receive FM is able to receive digital radio” [but fails to address why these criteria are not included in the Bill].

In the here and now, RadioCentre (the commercial radio trade body) explains:
• “[Digital Economy Bill Clause 30] allows the Secretary of State to set a [digital switchover] date, but does not require one to be set, or indicate when the date might be”.
• “The objective that switchover should not occur until certain thresholds have been reached for listening … appears sensible on first reading. However, RadioCentre does not believe it is appropriate for the industry to be tied to any figures in primary legislation. This is a very inflexible mechanism against which to manage our industry going forwards”.

Figures. Numbers. Dates. Criteria. This kind of factual evidence or hard data might obstruct a future decision to force consumers to switch to DAB radio.

So to answer the original question – the criteria and the switchover date that had been agreed upon by stakeholders, over two years of deliberations, have now quietly been relegated to oblivion.

When would digital radio switchover have happened if the agreed criteria had been implemented in law? Probably never.

When will digital radio switchover happen now? Whenever those in power want it to.