“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.”