FRANCE: “Digital terrestrial radio: now!”

Last week, three trade bodies in the digital radio sector in France jointly wrote this opinion piece published in Radioactu magazine:

“Digital terrestrial radio: now!”

Digital terrestrial radio has been a reality since 27 May 2009. A reality that came about through the decisions of the CSA [France’s media regulator], decisions that had been anticipated for many years by many commercial radio stations and associations who have submitted applications across France and who have made financial investments in the meantime.

These companies and associations were well aware of the digital radio standard that was chosen [T-DMB], despite controversy surrounding this decision, were also conscious of the need to simulcast [FM and T-DMB] during the period of migration to digital and, finally, were aware of radio’s need to digitise in order to quickly take its place in the converged media world, in the face of attempts by television and mobile phones to turn it into a minor player.

However, the reality of digital terrestrial radio is primarily the benefit to listeners of a significantly expanded radio content offering at local, regional and national levels.

In the first three areas selected by the CSA to launch later this year, the number of stations will increase from 48 FM to 55 digital in Paris, from 29 to 41 in Marseille, and from 27 to 40 in Nice.

The reality is also the opportunity offered to radio stations to expand their existing broadcast coverage areas and become, if they wish, multi-city stations or multi-region stations which would make them “new market entrants”, something that the unavailability of FM spectrum had denied them until now.

The reality is the introduction of new listener features unprecedented in FM radio. Sound quality equivalent to CDs. The ability to go back and listen to a whole show that has already been broadcast. The introduction of a visual mini-display on receivers that shows data associated with the show (station logo, photos of the host and guests, the CD sleeve or book cover…). As well as the interactivity offered by digital terrestrial radio in conjunction with internet and mobile phone networks is the ability to offer transactions connected to the broadcast show (music, concert tickets), to access travel information, check share prices, the weather …

Finally, the reality is the choice to offer “podcasts” and to benefit from the radio medium’s mobility to access free and accurate information.

These are all qualities which, like digital terrestrial television before it, will allow millions of French citizens to benefit from new content offerings which will always be free-of-charge.

However, in recent weeks, we note that those who, only yesterday, did everything to frustrate the adoption of DAB and the CSA’s call for licence applicants in 2000 to digitise the Medium Wave; those who refused the good sense to choose a common digital radio standard, preferring ‘multi-standards’ to European harmonisation, the American proprietary IBOC system and, more recently, the Korean T-DMB standard, are carrying on their ‘’ballet”, making incessant demands and all kinds of attacks upon the CSA, using delaying tactics to choose a standard that is anything other than the one they themselves imposed.

The big operators still feel they have an absolute monopoly, as if the radio landscape has not changed since the ‘liberation of the airwaves’ so that the landscape remains frozen, they can reject competition from new entrants, and can maintain the natural order and their enrichment.

But, despite these large players continuing their efforts to maintain their monopoly, they are today showing their weaknesses. They seem almost unable to create new offerings and new content when they know perfectly well that competitors are on their doorstep with new formats, new stations and a new radio spirit which thinks of radio as a multimedia experience which only digital terrestrial radio can make happen. The global radio medium has been born and it is the listener who makes the rules. It is the end of media that are imposed on the listener, as consumption habits are changing quickly (with a capital ‘Q’), but do the big operators get this? Above all, do they have the ability to adapt to this inevitable evolution? Anyway, even if their concerns are legitimate, their attempts to prevent the launch of terrestrial digital radio are not.

Today, it is no longer up to them to decide the future of radio in France. It is up to the public bodies, notably the CSA, to take responsibility for finally launching digital terrestrial radio, which had been decided by a call for licence applicants in March 2008. Many radio owners have been licensed and are ready to open their stations, just as there are many who could be ready to open new stations but who have not been licensed due to lack of spectrum.

We created the Vivement la Radio Numerique organisation in 2002, the Digital Radio Francaises committee in 2003, and the Digital Radio association in 2005. The first two have merged into the third to increase their productivity and to make digital terrestrial radio happen more quickly. All three are a legacy of the Club DAB and pay tribute to its president Roland Faure who, on the subject of DAB, expressed regret “that the processes for the digitisation of radio are blocked, despite the success of the call for licence applicants in 2000”, a subject on which all three organisations have spoken out.

We note with regret that, since 1996, politics has zig-zagged. The call for DAB licence applicants in 2000. The call for Medium Wave licence applicants in 2003. The adoption of a legal framework for the launch of digital radio in 2004. In 2005, Minister of Industry Patrick Devedjian made the statement that “digital radio is a high priority”. Then CSA President Dominique Baudis stated that “the Higher Council for Broadcasting will soon launch a consultation on digital radio, which will be the starting point of its launch”.

The call for digital radio licence applicants made in March 2008 in response to the strong demand (after numerous consultations with stakeholders, public meetings and technical tests). Progress had already been a long and winding road over more than a decade when, in May 2009, the powers that be finally intervened.

Any slowdown, postponement or delay will be very damaging to all existing operators, new entrants and future players who are all awaiting the launch of digital terrestrial radio. We will not tolerate further delays. Any further delay would be seen as a de facto cancellation of the licence awards made on 26 May 2009, which we would totally reject.

We cannot accept that the law can be constantly violated by a handful of players whose positions are constantly changing to turn digital radio into an imaginary illusion at the expense of listeners, our businesses, our organisations and our economy.

Radio is the only medium that has not yet been digitised. Digital terrestrial radio has been promised since 1996. It now exists in law, it has a legal framework, it is on the statute book, and the CSA has called for licence applicants and has selected the winners, all events that are in the public domain.

Everything is now in place for digital terrestrial radio to be launched. The system has been validated by the Ministry of Culture. The first three areas have been selected and the licence awards made. The public utility announced its intention to own and operate digital radio multiplexes. The contracts were sent to multiplex operators and the agreements were returned by the content providers. Commitments have been made to the ‘have nots’. The technical standards have been published for broadcasters and set manufacturers. Broadcasters have announced an incentive scheme for content providers to create multiplex owners. Set manufacturers are announcing their product lines.

Also, neither the current economic crisis, nor the internet, nor the fragmentation of listening habits (which go back more than 20 years) can justify a delay to the launch of digital terrestrial radio.

Any delay or postponement would risk thousands of jobs at a time when France, like many European countries, is trying to exit the crisis.

In these difficult times, only innovation and creativity count, and no lasting victory can be won by not following common sense.

The time is ripe to keep one’s promises and commitments in a spirit of self-discipline, necessity, will and, above all, responsibility or it will be need to be explained officially and publicly why digital radio was not launched, to name those who seek to prevent its launch in France, and to compensate the licensees.

Public broadcasters have been at the forefront of digital radio in Britain and Germany. In our country, it is high time that the public broadcaster comes out of the woods and takes on the responsibility, for which it has rights and duties to all our citizens: the right to pre-empt analogue and digital frequencies and the certainty of having its own multiplex to broadcast all of its channels to cover 90% of the country.

We must start digital terrestrial on time next December because nothing more should stop it and the various operators are ready. Those who do not want digital terrestrial radio have the internet solution. Radio is not only about market share or decades of radio experience, but about a wish to move the medium forward.

For us, digital terrestrial radio is now or never! We need to start with those who want it and they are many.

Those who do not want it, or who have filed applications lightly or by reflex but will not start within the period required by law, must take responsibility and return their licences to the CSA, who will re-advertise them to the benefit of the many operators waiting for digital licences.

Shalak Jamil, President of the Association Digital Radio
Tarek Mami, President of Vivement la Radio Numerique
Joel Pons, President of the Digital Radio Francaises committee


My post-script:

A digital radio trade show and conference takes place 20 to 22 October at Hall 7.3, VIParis, Porte de Versailles, Paris. The “Siel-Satis-Radio” event is billed as a “series of meetings dedicated to digital terrestrial radio which will take stock of the questions and viewpoints of stations and the aid promised to radio groups”.