In June 2010, the government published its flimsy 5-page response to the House of Lords Communications Committee’s critical 279-page report on digital switchover that had been unveiled three months earlier. The response was a disappointing document that dismissed with little more than one sentence each of the Committee’s carefully worded recommendations, deduced after having considered hours and volumes of evidence.
One of the Communications Committee’s most forceful recommendations, in Paragraph 107, had concerned the necessary improvements to DAB reception:
“Given the importance for the Government’s plans for digital switchover of universal reception of the BBC’s national stations, it is essential that a firm and unambiguous plan and funding for the completion of build-out of the BBC’s national multiplex is put in place as soon as possible.”
The government’s feeble response to this issue was:
“In order to agree a plan for DAB coverage build-out, so that it can ultimately meet the current levels of FM coverage, Ofcom have been asked to form a Coverage and Spectrum Planning Group to make recommendation on the following:
• the current coverage of national and local radio on FM;
• changes to the current multiplex structure and frequency allocation; and
• what new infrastructure is needed so that DAB can match FM.
Ofcom are expected to present their recommendation to Government in Spring 2011.”
Surely it does not need yet another government committee to look into DAB? Had not these issues already been considered by the Digital Radio Working Group two years ago? By Digital Britain a year ago? By Ofcom? By anybody during the last decade of DAB underachievement?
Then I recalled a speech made by Ofcom Director of Radio, Peter Davies, to the Radio Festival in July 2008, in which he had set out his imminent workplan on the DAB issue:
“Increased coverage of DAB will be absolutely essential if it is ever to become a full replacement for FM for most services…… That brings us to the tricky part – defining what existing coverage is and how we improve it. This is still work in progress but we are approaching it in three stages. Firstly, we need to define what existing FM coverage is. That’s not nearly as simple as it might sound. Radio is not like television where you stick an aerial on the roof and you get reception or you don’t. Radio is used in every room in the house, usually with a portable aerial. It’s used outdoors on a wide variety of devices and it’s listened to in cars. So we need to look at geographic coverage as well as population coverage, and we need to look at indoor coverage in different parts of the house. FM coverage gradually fades as you move around, so we need to decide how strong the signal needs to be to be usable. And, surprisingly, this work has never really been done in any kind of consistent manner for the UK as a whole, so it has taken a little while to agree a framework and calculate the numbers.
Having done that, we then have to do the same for existing DAB coverage. Now DAB has all the same issues as FM, but it also has different characteristics. It doesn’t fade in the same way – you either get it or you don’t – so we need a different set of definitions here. Once we have defined what existing DAB coverage is, we then have to work out what it would take to get existing DAB coverage up to the level of existing FM coverage. Now, we have already done a lot of work on this, and certainly enough to inform the interim report, and the whole thing will be finalised in time for the [government’s] Digital Radio Working Group final report later this year.”
This 2008 workplan seems to comprise precisely the same tasks that the government has just told Ofcom to start and complete by Spring 2011. So what happened? Was this work not done by late 2008, as Davies had promised? And if not, why not?
Improvements to DAB reception were considered a critical issue for consumer take-up of DAB radio … in 2008. Now, in 2010, they are probably the main factor likely to sound the death knell of DAB as a mass market consumer platform. So are we to assume that, in the intervening two years, work on this essential issue was never done, or was not completed, by Ofcom?
Why should consumers consider DAB radio to be anything other than a disaster if even our public servants appear to be busy doing little to fix the acute problems with DAB reception that the public has been rightly complaining about for years?