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

When is a consultation not a consultation? When Ofcom consults about radio

Each of us has dozens of ‘consultations’ every day. You know the sort of thing. ‘I’m going to the corner shop – anything you want?’ ‘A Kit-Kat?’ ‘OK.’ However, if I came back with a cat rather than a chocolate bar, you would understandably be unhappy. That had not really been a consultation at all.

Ofcom’s consultations on radio are increasingly like that. Ofcom pretends it is going to listen. It doesn’t listen. And then it does whatever it wanted to do in the first place. Mmmm. Surely that is not really a consultation at all.

In June 2011, an Ofcom consultation asked six questions about a proposal by Now Digital (owned by radio transmission provider Arqiva) to extend the coverage of its Exeter and Torbay DAB multiplex to North Devon. One of those questions was:

“Q6. Do you consider that there any other grounds on which Ofcom should approve, or not approve, the request from Now Digital? Please explain the reasons for your view.”

However, Ofcom had apparently already decided that its ‘consultation’ was not a genuine consultation at all, when it explained:

“Before deciding whether to agree to Now Digital’s request, Ofcom is legally required to seek representations on the request from any interested parties. … Provided that the request meets the terms of the statute, the decision whether or not to agree to the request is at Ofcom’s discretion.”

So, Ofcom’s 21-page consultation document was really a complete waste of time and money. The decision was already made. And it would be even more of a waste of time and money for anyone to respond. But respond they did.

In July 2011, Ofcom admitted that, out of 234 responses submitted to its consultation, “the vast majority … were opposed to Now Digital’s request.”

Most objected on the grounds that:
• “agreement to the extension of the multiplex would enable the holder of an existing FM local commercial radio licence for Barnstaple to secure the renewal of that licence, precluding the advertisement of a new such licence (which otherwise would have been due to take place forthwith); and;
• the level of coverage of North Devon proposed by Now Digital was unsatisfactory as it would leave 30% of households in the area with no access to radio services in the event of a digital radio switchover.”

Did Ofcom care about this volume of public opposition? Not at all. Did it investigate why the share of listening to the merged Heart FM Devon had fallen dramatically to an all-time low last quarter (behind BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio Devon) [RAJAR, 2011 Q1]? Apparently not. Ofcom explained:

“The [Ofcom Radio Licensing] Committee [RLC] noted the strong opposition to the fact that approval of Now Digital’s request would allow Lantern Radio Limited, the holder of the local [Heart] FM commercial radio licence for Barnstaple, to apply for a renewal of the licence and thereby preclude advertisement of a new licence. However, the RLC did not consider that this fact should preclude the granting of Now Digital’s request.”

And why not? Because Ofcom’s wholly unrealistic policy objective, for DAB to replace AM/FM radio, is still being doggedly pursued to the exclusion of any wider regulatory issues – consumer choice, market competition or the removal of barriers to sector entry. As well as to the exclusion of the majority of the 234 respondents to this consultation.

To put the same thing in Ofcom’s own weasel words: “What Now Digital Limited sought in its request is provided for in section 54A of the 1996 Act. Agreeing to the request would be consistent with the broad policy aims of that section. Namely, the extension and promotion of local DAB broadcasting with the consumer benefits of greater choice of services.” [emphasis added]

Now Digital promised to launch the first of three new DAB transmitters in North Devon within six months of Ofcom’s approval. And what about the remaining two? Now Digital promised these will be installed “six months after a positive decision in 2013 by Government regarding digital switchover”. Oh, so you mean ‘never.’

The ulterior objective of this proposal was that the promise to build a single new DAB transmitter in North Devon would enable Global Radio to automatically renew its existing FM licence in Barnstaple for a further eight years without a public contest, thus denying any potential new entrants. Ofcom simply rolled over and complied. And what did Ofcom suggest to the complainants who might not have felt that London-based Global Radio was offering them a genuinely local radio station in Heart FM? It stated:

“The RLC recognised the strength of feeling among many respondents to the consultation for there to be an opportunity for an alternative provider of a local radio service in North Devon to apply for a licence … Ofcom is always keen to facilitate new local radio services for listeners where such services are viable and therefore able to offer consumer benefits over the long term. To this end, the RLC noted that, in its response to the consultation, Arqiva stated that there is presently capacity for at least one further new station to be accommodated on the Exeter & Torbay local [DAB] radio multiplex.”

This is patronising rubbish. “Viable”? “Consumer benefits”? Can Ofcom please name any DAB-only radio station that is making an operating profit as a standalone business? No? Because there isn’t one. DAB radio has proven to be one massive financial black hole that has wasted approaching £1bn. Suggesting to consultation respondents that they start their own new local radio station on DAB is akin to Ofcom recommending these correspondents burn down their own houses.

All Ofcom has done is raise two fingers to the people of North Devon in this consultation. If I were Ofcom’s director of radio, Peter Davies, I would not consider booking a holiday in North Devon any time soon.

Unless Global were to return the favour by picking up the tab for his bodyguards?

SPAIN: DAB digital radio switched off in most of country

A new law in Spain has reduced the coverage requirement of the country’s DAB radio transmissions from 50% to 20% of the population.

From 10 June 2011, a new Royal Decree required that DAB broadcasts “must ensure a minimum coverage of 20% of the population,” replacing the 50% requirement that had been stipulated in legislation since 1999.

Within the next three years, the government will be able to change this coverage requirement once again if digital radio does not grow its audience share to more than 10% of total radio listening. In the unlikely event that digital radio’s audience share ever exceeds 10%, DAB radio coverage will be required to increase from 20% back to 50% of the population.

As reported here in 2010 [see blog], commercial radio in Spain has found no incentive to broadcast on DAB because “the audience is zero.” This new legislation relieves broadcasters from having to underwrite an expensive DAB radio transmission system that, to date, had generated no incremental listeners or revenues.

The Decree noted that:

“The development of terrestrial sound broadcasting has been hampered in recent years by, amongst other things, a lack of digital radio receivers which has significantly reduced the audience share initially anticipated and, thus, has jeopardised the possibility for station owners to achieve a return on their investment.”

The web site marketing DAB radio in Spain has not been updated since April 2008. The web page for state radio’s DAB transmissions no longer exists. It has been reported that DAB radio broadcasts will now be limited to only two metropolitan areas.

[thanks to Eivind Engberg and Wohnort]

PORTUGAL: DAB digital radio switched off

On 1 June 2011, Rádio e Televisão de Portugal [RTP], the state broadcaster in Portugal, instructed Anacom, the national transmission provider, to switch off all DAB radio transmitters.

RTP explained in a press statement that its decision was the outcome of budgetary constraints and the fact that no commercial broadcasters had agreed to broadcast on DAB. Additionally, it said that “high priced radio receivers had prevented many people acquiring them.”

According to one Portuguese newspaper:

“The DAB terrestrial digital radio system was launched in August 1998 by RTP and by Anacom, which manages the national transmission system. Despite having national coverage, which was decreed by law in July 1998 that permitted broadcasts by all radio stations interested in the platform, DAB never took off in Portugal. Until now, the platform has been limited to relays of existing FM broadcasts by state radio because no commercial radio station signed up. The implementation of DAB also struggled with the fact that there was insufficient supply in the Portuguese market of DAB radio receivers, according to sources consulted by this publication. Apparently, the DAB system was costing €250,000 per annum over more than a decade. The need for RTP to invest in replacing this transmitter network may have weighed heavily on the decision to suspend the service.”

GMCS, the Portuguese media regulator, explained in April 2011:

“RTP claims that, despite the significant investment totalling €6.3m to date, the reality is that few Portuguese used the [DAB] system, which leads us to conclude that the allocation of resources to this project does not meet the efficiency requirement and good practice required for public funds.”

[thanks to Eivind Engberg and Wohnort]

DAB in cars: the straw that will break digital radio switchover’s back

Speaking today at the Intellect conference in London, broadcasting Minister Ed Vaizey tried to assure us that digital radio switchover was still “on course” to happen in the year twenty something or other:

“On cars, the move to include digital radio as standard in new vehicles has continued over the last year. Around 14% of new vehicles have DAB as standard, up from 4% a year ago.”

Within hours, this news was misinterpreted by one online news source as Vaizey having said:

Forty per cent of cars have DAB [Digital Audio Broadcasting] radios as standard now, up from just four per cent a year ago.”

From ‘14% of new cars’ to ‘40% of all cars’ in a stroke of a keyboard! No wonder the article went on to assert that “the key driver to the take-up of the [DAB] technology looks like it will come from the car industry as manufacturers start to fit digital radios as standard.”

How wrong can this statement be? Fewer than 1% of vehicles on the road currently have a DAB radio. That proportion is not going to increase quickly, even by 2013 or 2015, as the government wants it to. Rather than being “the key driver” for DAB radio take-up, cars will become THE major sticking point for digital radio switchover.

The UK car industry appears to be nearing the end of its tether over the confused information that has been fed to consumers in recent years about the so-called DAB ‘switchover’ and FM ‘switch-off’ date(s). This frustration boiled over at the last government Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting on 17 May 2011, when Bob Davis, who heads the Digital Radio Committee of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders [SMMT], stood up to offer what he referred to as a “naughty” comment:

“Jane [Humphreys, Department for Culture, Media & Sport] said earlier ‘around 2015’ for a digital radio switchover. The automotive industry has made it very, very clear, since the process began, that it needs certainty. We’ve got 2013 [as the date for a government decision on switchover] and we think we’re working towards a 2015 switchover date. With respect, Jane, I can already see tomorrow’s headlines that DCMS says ‘digital switchover delayed from 2015’ because you used the phrase ‘around 2015’. That implies a delay. It may be what potentially happens in the market – it may be 2016, it might be a bit later than that – but, for the moment, from an automotive industry perspective, every time there’s a suggestion that 2015 has stopped being the aspirational date – or might stop being an aspirational date – all that happens is [that] the automotive industry, or parts of it, is given another opportunity to say ‘it ain’t going to happen, forget all about it’ and we will end up with the bigger problem of converting vehicles already in the parc to digital, because people will just say ‘if DCMS can’t give us certainty’ – and I accept that, at the moment, you can’t – but if DCMS are saying ‘around 2015’ instead of ‘in 2015’, it reduces the opportunity for SMMT to keep telling its members there’s a deadline, and it’s ‘this’. So please could we have a little bit of caution, from an automotive industry perspective, in (particularly) government references to switchover dates.”

Jane Humphreys: “Thank you, Bob, though I think I’m right in saying that the Minister has never said ‘it will be in 2015’. He too has said that it will be in terms of … that is the target to which we are working, but what is the principal objective is that we have to meet the criteria that have been set out and we have a piece of legislation – unless I’m much mistaken – that says there will be a minimum of two years’ notice. So….”

John Mottram, DCMS: “That’s right. I’m aware of three Daily Mail articles that suggest it’s seven years, two years, five years’ delay depending upon the date, so I think in terms of coverage and it being delayed, I think that delay is already out there. But to Jane’s point, I think the Action Plan and Ed [Vaizey]’s words make it clear that it’s a consumer-led approach. The industry target date is 2015 – we’ve never shifted from that – but that decision is based on the criteria….”

At that point, the meeting was abruptly closed. What had been scheduled to be merely another ‘tick the government box’ faux consultation meeting had suddenly started to spin out of control. The natives had started to get restless. It was time to turn them out onto the street again.

GERMANY: “DAB [radio] remains a problem child”

On 2 May 2011, a panel convened at the Central Germany Media Conference in Leipzig to discuss the future of digital radio. The panellists were: Gerd Bauer from LMS, Erwin Linnenbach from Regiocast, Christophe Montague from NRJ International Operations and Willi Steul from Deutschlandradio.
The panel felt that one of the main problems around the planned (re-)launch of digital radio in Germany on 1 August 2011 was the lack of DAB+ capable radio receivers in the market. “The left shoe is there, but not the right one,” commented Erwin Linnenbach, who was concerned that it would be difficult to persuade consumers to buy a digital radio if they did not know what they would be able to receive on it.
Willi Steul said that he had had to visit three shops before he had found one that stocked a DAB+ radio. “An ordinary customer would not make that effort, but would have bought an FM radio from the first place,” he suggested. Deutschlandradio would save €12m per annum from being able to shut down its Long Wave and Medium Wave transmitters, said Steul. However, even if DAB+ were available nationwide, he did not believe that FM switch-off was an issue.
Christophe Montague suggested that, where there were already a wide range of FM radio stations, there was no need for new channels. This was the reason why it would prove so hard to launch digital radio in France. Whereas, in many parts of Germany, Montague said that it was a “radio desert.”
The panellists agreed that the biggest problem was the lack of DAB+ radios in shops. Linnenbach did not believe that this issue could be fixed by 1 August because there was not enough time. The objective had to be to make radio listeners understand the benefits offered by DAB+. If that succeeded, he believed the chances were good for a successful launch.
The panel proceedings were reported in the German press under sceptical headlines:
“DAB Plus before launch – an uncertain outlook for success,” said Business-on
“Media conference – success of DAB Plus not guaranteed,” said Digitalfernsehen
“Media conference – DAB remains a problem child,” said Rein-Hoeren
According to the latter publication, Erwin Linnenbach had said that the monopoly of transmission company Media Broadcast was the major obstacle to nationwide digital radio in Germany. He felt that Media Broadcast’s requirements did not offer a sensible business model to potential DAB+ broadcasters [see my blog Dec 2010]. Christophe Montague agreed and said he had the impression that Media Broadcast would make the most out of the DAB tender process.
Heinz-Dieter Sommer, director of radio at Hessischen Rundfunks, said that economically viable conditions had to be created to enable commercial radio companies to participate in DAB+ alongside the public service broadcasters. “Otherwise,” he said, “in ten years time, FM will still not be switched off.”
Two British digital radio companies have committed financial support to the roll-out of national DAB+ in Germany in August 2011. This follows the slow-down of DAB radio receiver sales in the UK in 2009 and 2010 [see my blog].
In December 2010, Frontier Silicon announced that, in order to persuade four commercial radio broadcasters in Germany to persevere with DAB+, it had promised them it would purchase an unspecified amount of their advertising airtime over the next four years [see my blog].
Then, in March 2011, Pure Digital announced that it had forged “a strategic marketing partnership with Germany’s commercial radio stations in advance of the launch of the first nationwide digital radio multiplex.” It said that “the partnership and financial investment” it was providing would ensure that its digital radios would be “heavily promoted in various German media.”
Germany could be under the mistaken impression that DAB radio is already a roaring success in the UK market. It was reported in the German press last week:
“While listening in Germany is still dominated by analogue radio, the British have long joined the digital age. Figures from RAJAR have shown that, in Q1 2011, nearly 92% of the population have listened to digital radio, on average for more than 22 hours per week.” [source]
“Britain remains a pioneer in listening to digital radio via DAB. On Thursday, new RAJAR record figures were recorded. 47.3m listeners (91.6%) in the first quarter listened at least once a week to digital radio.” [source]
In fact, the most recent RAJAR research found that 43% of the UK adult population listened to digital radio in a week, and only 27% listened to DAB radio. The high percentages quoted in the German press are for listening to ALL radio via ALL platforms, not for digital radio or DAB radio alone.
I recall Frontier Silicon chief executive Anthony Sethill having been quoted in his company’s press release in 2008 saying: “Digital radio is here to stay, with DAB sets outselling analogue models by six to one.”
In fact, in the UK, analogue radios outsell DAB radios by four-to-one. Mmmm. It looks as if the DAB propaganda war in Germany has only just begun.

FRANCE: government report recommends 2-3 year “moratorium” before launch of digital radio

A new report on the introduction of digital terrestrial radio (‘DAB radio’ in the UK) in France has recommended to the government that the launch should be delayed by two to three years. In the interim, the French media regulator CSA would be asked to establish a project to investigate the “overseas experiences” of digital radio, according to the government press release.

David Kessler, former head of state radio station France Culture, was commissioned in June 2010 by the government to produce a strategic analysis of the launch of digital radio in France. His interim report, published in November 2010 [see blog], identified the “paradox of DAB radio – it is a sufficiently attractive technology to be launched successfully, but it is insufficiently attractive to successfully allow FM broadcasts to cease.”

In the final report, published this week, Kessler said that not all the conditions had been met from an economic standpoint to permit the widespread launch of digital terrestrial radio. His report identified the significantly different challenges between digital radio switchover and digital television switchover:

“An error in logic has probably contributed greatly to making the debate [about digital radio] opaque rather than transparent. The error came from having planned digital radio switchover with reference to digital television switchover, which started in 2005 and the success of which has been staggering and immediate, so that the changeover from analogue to digital TV will be completed throughout the land by 2012. Many parties imagined that the route to digital opened up by television would be followed by radio. But this plan was wrong for three reasons.

Firstly, the television market was dominated in 2005 by five channels (TF1, France 2, France 3, France 5/Arte and M6) that attracted 75% of television viewing. The transition to a score of free channels was obviously very attractive. However, as will be discussed later, the situation in radio is quite different – the current choice of stations is one of the richest that exists in the world, after the landscape opened up in the 80s. Even if the choice is not the same in every region, none of them – some near – are in a situation where only five major stations dominate the choice.

Second is the difference in receivers. Even if digital radio switchover had been launched simultaneously with that of television, where the evolution of televisions (flat screen, HD and now 3D) resulted in a faster replacement of equipment than anticipated, digital television was accessible without changing the set through the purchase of a single adaptor at a moderate price. Digital radio switchover requires the replacement of all receivers, and households have multiple radios and the market is sluggish. Without doubt, digital radio switchover could re-invigorate the market with a simple, inexpensive high-end (with screen) radio. At this point, no one can say how quickly take-up of replacement receivers will happen. Examples overseas – particularly Britain – demonstrate a relatively slow rate of replacement, and the different situation in countries where take-up is faster – Korea, Australia – make comparisons difficult.

The third reason is that the history of television demonstrates that it works through ‘exclusive changes’ where one technology replaces another quickly. Colour television pushed out black and white television. Digital television is about to push out analogue television. But experience shows that far from all media work this way. On the contrary, some go through ‘cumulative change’. Over a short or long period of time, different technologies co-exist and content is distributed through several technologies. As Robert Darnton noted about the book, we often forget that the printed word has long co-existed with the manuscript. From this perspective, the history of radio is the opposite of television: different transmission systems are cumulative rather than exclusive. This does not exclude the possibility that, in the long run, some transmission systems will decline and no longer be used, just as printing marginalised the manuscript. But what it means is that one cannot plan the launch of digital radio by imagining that all other transmission systems will be switched off, particularly FM. Even today, despite the success of FM, Long Wave and Medium Wave transmissions are still used because they reach a sufficient number of listeners not be switched off by broadcasters.

In fact, a careful examination of the launch of digital radio in other European countries shows that a ‘cumulative change’ scenario exists that we must anticipate in France too. Indeed, the launch of digital radio in other European countries had been presented as a quick substitute for analogue radio, even though the existing choice of analogue stations was less than in France, and the choice of digital stations seemed more attractive and content-rich than offered by analogue. Even if a proportion of listeners are quickly adopting digital radio, a greater proportion are still sticking with their traditional radios, with the possible exception of Norway, where analogue switch-off seems to be seriously considered at present. This leads to a situation in which the government initially adopts a goal of analogue switch-off but then, given the impossibility of switch-off, drops or postpones the switch-off date by several years. As the choice of existing radio stations is particularly substantial in France, it would appear that this situation is most likely to be repeated if digital radio were to be launched. Radio station owners are not mistaken. Very few want a quick switch-off of FM, and some do not want any switch-off.”

These points echo evidence on digital radio switchover in the UK that I had presented to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications in January 2010:

“With television, there existed consumer dissatisfaction with the limited choice of content available from the four or five available analogue terrestrial channels. This was evidenced by consumer willingness to pay subscriptions for exclusive content delivered by satellite. Consumer choice has been extended greatly by the Freeview digital terrestrial channels, many of which are available free, and the required hardware is low-cost.

Ofcom research demonstrates that there is little dissatisfaction with the choice of radio content available from analogue terrestrial channels, and there is no evidence of consumer willingness to pay for exclusive radio content. Consequently, the radio industry has proven unable to offer content on DAB of sufficient appeal to persuade consumers to purchase relatively high-cost DAB hardware in anywhere near as substantial numbers as they have purchased Freeview digital television boxes.”

The Kessler document should offer significant food for thought to the British government for its unworkable plans for DAB radio switchover. Whereas Kessler correctly identified that TV and radio digital switchover are two very different undertakings, our public servants working on digital radio policy in the government and in Ofcom have long failed to understand these differences. The appointment of Ford Ennals as chief executive of Digital Radio UK in 2009, on the back of his work between 2005 and 2008 managing digital television switchover, should have been viewed as barely relevant experience to achieve successful digital radio switchover.

Have any of the people managing digital radio switchover for the UK ever actually worked in the radio industry? At DCMS? No. At Ofcom? No. At Digital Radio UK? No. If, like Kessler, they had radio sector experience, they would realise that all their speeches and presentations that repeatedly cite digital TV switchover as the precedent for radio are completely off-target.

Is there any wonder that failure of DAB public policy was inevitable?

DAB Radio Downgrade: how is ‘90% of FM coverage’ a sensible target for DAB to replace FM?

“Makin’ a good t’ing bad!”

Moving the goalposts. Governments are adept at doing just that to help them achieve their targets or to make figures look better than they really are. Digital radio switchover is no exception. Given the technical and financial impossibility of the task plotted twenty years ago to completely replace analogue radio broadcasting with DAB radio, it has became necessary in recent months for the civil servants and digital radio lobbyists to move the goalposts.

In a blog in April 2011, I had outlined Ofcom’s latest ruse to deliberately plan to make DAB reception worse than existing FM reception for many radio listeners. Nevertheless, Ofcom will still declare this a victory for the technical superiority of the DAB platform.

The latest proposal under consideration is to make coverage of local DAB transmitters equivalent to 90% of existing FM coverage. On the one hand, this represents a belated admission that DAB radio cannot realistically achieve the same robust coverage as FM. On the other, it is a massive kick in the teeth to radio listeners – an attempt to purposefully replace something good (FM) with something worse (DAB). Madness!

A recent presentation by DAB lobbyist organisation Digital Radio UK invoked a new, vague “local digital coverage equivalent to 90%” criterion [see below]:

“90%” of what? The government’s Digital Britain report in June 2009 had fixed the digital radio switchover criteria as:
• “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.” [emphasis added]

There was never anything in Digital Britain about achieving “90% of existing FM coverage.” It was always “90% of the population.” The goalposts are being moved to make it easier for the government and DAB lobbyists to declare that DAB has achieved the criteria. Despite this outcome making the consumer experience of radio evidently worse.

We were told that one result of the Digital Radio Summit meeting on 31 March 2011 between government, regulator and the radio industry was:

“It is understood that it will cost around £20-30m to extend the local DAB signal to 90% of the FM signal in the UK…”

At a Westminster Media Forum conference on 5 April 2011, the topic of this newly created “90% of FM” criterion was raised by several speakers:

Jimmy Buckland, director of strategy, UTV Media: “There’s a DCMS [Department for Culture, Media & Sport] plan that’s been referred to today that’s currently on the table that would take local multiplexes to just 90% of what FM already delivers, with no commitment on major roads. If that plan’s agreed, it just about gets us to base camp.”

[…]

Neil Midgley, assistant media editor, The Daily Telegraph: “Now the briefing that we were getting last week was somewhere below £30 million for a build out to about 90% of current FM coverage. “

[…]

Daniel Nathan, director, Brighton & Hove Radio: “Just leading on from that, in Jimmy’s slide we saw the figure being an aspiration of ‘90% of the population’ and I was quite disturbed to hear that now that they are kind of moving away from ‘90% of the population’ to ‘90% FM coverage.’ When was that decided and by whom?”

[…]

Jimmy Buckland: “There were two different figures, there was originally a figure which was the criterion, at which point you would make a decision about switchover which was that the Government said that once we had ‘90% population coverage’ and ‘coverage of all major roads,’ you could make a decision and there were a couple of other criteria that go with that. The second figure which was ‘90% coverage of current FM’ for local DAB concerns what would be delivered by a proposal which is currently on the table. So to tie in with the previous point, what that £30 million delivers is a little bit more coverage at the local level, aggregated to 90% on a UK wide basis, so in some local markets it could be comfortably less than 90%, in other markets it could be higher and it doesn’t get you to the universality that you need for switchover.”

So, two questions remain unanswered:
• Who came up with the idea of ‘90% of FM coverage’ to be sneaked in as an easier criterion?
• Why are large parts of the radio industry (including RadioCentre and the BBC) not publicly campaigning against this ridiculous proposal intended to make reception of their radio stations on DAB WORSE for listeners than existing reception on FM?

It is hard not to conclude that the parties involved in this latest wheeze seem happy to treat the UK’s 46,727,000 radio listeners with utter contempt.

Which? says: DAB radio switchover must be “consumer led or not at all”

What would have to be done to make DAB radio successful?

“What there does need to be, as Freeview and digital satellite has shown in television, is simply a sufficient combination of services, technology, simplicity and price or discount to provide a value proposition for the consumer,” suggested Stephen Carter in 2004, when he was chief executive of Ofcom.

“….. for the consumer” were the key words. They were also the words that became forgotten. The consumer was ignored in the radio industry’s pursuit of the radio industry’s own agenda for DAB radio. As a consequence, DAB radio has still not succeeded … with consumers. The failings were acknowledged by Quentin Howard, one of the architects of DAB radio in the UK:

“The mistake by broadcasters was in not understanding that ‘build it and they will come’ is no longer practical in this integrated technological age.”

Which?, the UK consumer advocacy, noted the radio industry’s lack of attention to the consumer in a February 2011 briefing paper entitled ‘Digital Radio Switchover in 2015? Consumer Led Or Not At All’:

“The transition to digital radio is currently industry led. The benefits of a transition to digital radio over the current analogue service are not clear to consumers, and the uptake of the technology over the past 10 years reflects this.”

Which? suggested that, before the government can announce a date for digital radio switchover, the following criteria should be met:

• “Uptake should be a minimum of 70% of all FM radio listening transferred to digital, leaving 30% still listening on analogue (FM/LW/MW/SW) (the Government’s Digital Radio Action Plan suggests 50%)
• The transition to digital must not be announced until coverage, including a measure of signal quality, is better than that of FM radio
• DAB must have been fitted as standard in all new cars for at least two years and an effective and affordable solution to in-car conversion must be available prior to the announcement of a switchover (which costs no more than for in-home conversion)
• Government must conduct a full cost-benefit analysis from a consumer perspective as a priority because increasing consumer desire for DAB should not focus on cost alone
• Minimum standards associated with a kite mark must be ambitious and future-proofed and any incentive scheme to switch to DAB should offer only kite marked receivers
• Consumer group representatives must be involved in the development of an information campaign independent from industry to raise awareness of the digital switchover by consumers and ensure guidance and training tools are available to retailers. In this regard, any lessons from the Digital TV switchover should be acted upon
• In its assessment of the environmental impact of a switchover to digital radio, the Government must tackle the full range of issues around recycling of analogue sets and the energy impacts of DAB”

However, in some of these areas of concern, current policy on DAB radio appears to be moving in the opposite direction to that advocated by Which?:

• The 50% criterion (50% of radio listening via digital platforms before switchover can be announced) is not mandatory because it was never included in the Digital Economy Act [see my Jan 2010 blog]
• The latest plan for DAB is not to deliver reception even as good as FM, but to make it worse than FM [see my recent blog]
• Only 1% of cars have DAB radios fitted and future take-up will inevitably be slow [see my recent blog]
• Roberts Radio reported a 35-40% customer return rate for its in-car DAB radio adaptors [see my Nov 2010 blog]
• The cost benefit analysis of DAB radio to be considered by the government will also be authored by the government, rather than commissioned independently [see my Jan 2011 blog]
• Roberts Radio admitted having had to pull the plug on several DAB receiver projects, including the industry’s promised ‘£25 DAB radio’, because they could not meet Roberts’ minimum quality standards

In July 2010, after the formation of the new coalition government, culture minister Ed Vaizey had said:

“If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready, we will support a 2015 switchover date. But, as I have already said, it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover.” [see my Sep 2010 blog]

So, it might appear that the Minister and Which? are, in fact, both lined up in agreement that digital radio switchover can only happen if it is supported by consumers. So why has the government not yet recognised that consumers already seem to have given the thumbs down to DAB?

Because there are middle men (Ofcom, DCMS, Digital Radio UK, Arqiva, DAB multiplex licence owners) who persist in keeping the DAB dream alive in Whitehall. Yet again, consumers are being drowned out by the clamour of agencies eager to pursue their own narrow objectives. And the mantra of the middle men is: ‘DAB crisis, what crisis’?

DAB Radio Downgrade? The new masterplan to deliver DAB radio reception worse than FM

When something works well, it just works. You do not need to analyse why it works. It just works. And nobody asks questions as to why or how. That is the case with FM radio. During half a century of development, more and more FM transmitters have been built across the UK (2,100 currently in operation) so as to reach the point now where almost the entire population receives an FM signal (maybe not always perfect, but some reception rather than none at all).

DAB radio was intended to replace FM radio. However, it must only be worth replacing FM with DAB if DAB is actually better than FM. Why replace a transmission system that has taken 50 years to perfect with something that is going to be worse? Unfortunately, nobody thought to conduct a cost/benefit analysis during the last two decades to determine what the cost would be of making DAB radio reception as good as FM radio, let alone better. As a result, DAB radio was foisted upon the public in 1999 without a roadmap to ensure that reception was even as good as FM radio for consumers.

Twelve years later, DAB reception remains worse than FM reception in many places, or is non-existent. Whereas poor FM reception gives the consumer a poor quality listening experience, poor DAB reception provides no listening experience whatsoever. With DAB, a poor signal is the same as no signal.

Instead of Ofcom valiantly admitting defeat over DAB radio – which might infer that the regulator and its predecessor, the Radio Authority, had screwed up the implementation of DAB in the UK – Ofcom presses ahead with increasingly desperate attempts to try and salvage this technological and regulatory disaster.

Ofcom’s latest ‘project’ is to try and understand why FM radio, more than half a century after its introduction, gives consumers acceptable radio reception. Intrinsically, the work is redundant. If FM works well, why bother to analyse why it works? The answer is: because DAB radio does not work. In order to make DAB work, an understanding is deemed necessary of why the system it was intended to replace – FM radio – does work.

Belatedly, it has been understood by the bureaucrats that the expense of making DAB as good as FM will prove too costly. It requires too many DAB transmitters, too many DAB power increases, at too great a cost for the radio industry. Might this not be a good time for them to back away from the notion of DAB radio REPLACING FM radio because it is simply too costly, even just to make it AS GOOD?

Not for the bureaucrats involved. Instead, the philosophy within Ofcom and the government is a new plan to deliberately make DAB radio NOT AS GOOD as FM radio. But still to persuade consumers that DAB is intended to replace FM radio for national and large local radio stations. Madness? Yes. Self-defeating? Yes. Contempt for radio listeners? Totally.

Peter Davies, who is responsible for radio at Ofcom, explained part of this 1984-style philosophy to replace ‘good’ FM with ‘worse’ DAB to the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting in the calmest of tones on 3 February 2011. Although his presentation is lengthy, I have included Davies’ words in full below so that you too can try and decipher the logic of a solution for DAB radio that is purposefully sub-par.

Perhaps the Digital Radio UK marketing slogan next winter will be: ‘Buy a DAB radio! Worse reception than FM guaranteed. But better than no radio at all.’

Peter Davies, Ofcom: “The Coverage Planning Working Group is chaired by Ofcom, but we have effectively two groups that are feeding into this. There is the actual Working Group that is doing all the sort of hard grind of doing the planning work, and that consists of Ofcom, Arqiva and the BBC. There is also a Planning Advisory Group which consists of all the [DAB] multiplex operators, with Digital Radio UK and RadioCentre as well. So what I’m going to run you through this afternoon, quite quickly because of the time, is just what we’re doing in terms of FM. What is it we are trying to match? Secondly, how you then do that with DAB. Thirdly, looking at what we need to do to the frequency plan in the UK to achieve that. And then just onto the next steps.

So, FM coverage. I should say we are doing this for national services as well as local. So it’s both BBC and commercial national services, as well as the local. But I’m going to focus this afternoon on the local because that’s, in a way, where some of the more difficult issues are. This is a map of Manchester. I know you won’t be able to see the detail on that, but it gives you an impression, at least. So what we’ve done in each part – in fact, in the whole country – is define a set of ‘editorial areas.’ So that’s shown on this map by that dotted line – you can see around the edge, a sort of dark purple dotted line – so that everywhere in the country is covered by one or more areas – there are some overlaps – but at least everywhere is covered by one area. So the editorial areas are areas that have been agreed by the BBC and by the [DAB] multiplex operator and commercial radio operators as being the sort of area that they would, in an ideal world, like to cover. It’s also based on [DAB] multiplex areas, so it’s a bit of a compromise.

So, if you look at the actual coverage of BBC Radio Manchester [GMR] within this, that’s shown in the sort of standard way of measuring – 54 db – is shown in green but, actually, editorially BBC Radio Manchester would like to cover the bits within the dotted line. So there is coverage beyond the editorial area where people can pick up the service, but it’s not really intended for them. And, equally, there are bits within the existing editorial area which aren’t covered terribly well on FM but which, nevertheless, the station would like to think it serves.

In terms of the actual [FM] coverage, it’s been quite difficult to determine what that is. The ‘54db’ is the standard internationally agreed planning measure. So that’s 54db per μv per metre, but I’m not an engineer so don’t ask me any more detail than that. But it’s a definition that was drawn up back in the 1950s and is really about reception 10m above the ground, using a rooftop aerial and it sort of tells you whether you can get a signal on your radiogram, which is not terribly useful [now]. So we know that people use radios in very different ways, but we sort of know that this works, but it has never actually been tested. So it’s a planning definition, which is very old and slightly messy.

So what we’ve been doing as part of this work is drawing up what’s known as a ‘link budget ‘, which is effectively taking the signal strength as it leaves the transmitter and then adjusting it all the way along until it actually gets to the receiver. So, in other words, you adjust it because it’s a distance from the transmitter going over some hilly ground, going down into buildings, loss within the receiver itself and so on. So that you can work out what signal strength you will need to work to get decent FM coverage. So we’ve looked at three different strengths because we know that the 54db is probably a little bit conservative, so we also looked at 48db and 42db, again because conditions vary between what you can receive on a portable kitchen radio and what you can get in your car. We are also looking at coverage not only of households, but also of major roads as well, so it’s not just an indoor measurement we’re looking at.

What we have seen so far is actually that the link budget we have developed is that these numbers are probably about right. So 42db is probably about right for cars. But you can see that there’s not actually very much yellow on that map, so that most places either get a good solid indoor signal, or the signal’s not good at all, basically. So, for each area, we have looked at both the BBC local service – so that’s BBC Manchester – and also the commercial coverage, and we’ve taken the largest commercial station in each area. So, for Manchester, this is ‘Key 103.’ As you can see, the coverage is very different, mainly because they are using different transmitter sites and different powers on FM. But, of course, both of those services and others are on the same multiplex for DAB, so you have to think ‘what exactly is it on FM that we are trying to match?’ It’s no good just matching Key 103, you can’t just match to Key 103 because then you would be missing out BBC Manchester and other services. In this case, commercial [radio coverage] is smaller. In other cases that we have looked at, the commercial [stations] cover one part of the county but not another, but the BBC [station] will do the opposite.

So, what we’ve then done is to look at the composite coverage of both BBC local [radio] and the largest commercial station. So this is what we think people in the area would expect to be able to hear as a local service on FM. So you get either the BBC or the commercial radio [station] or both. So that’s the basis of what we think we should be trying to match. So it would be sort of green or blue for indoor, and the yellow bits for road coverage. As I say, we’ve done that for basically every area in the country, including the Nations services – so Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, etc for the BBC – and for the national services as well.

The question then is ‘how do we match DAB [to FM]?’ So the approach to that again has been to build up a link budget for DAB, starting with the transmitter and going right the way through to the receiver. And we’ve been doing receiver tests as part of that. And what we tried to do – because that sort of coverage is slightly debatable on FM – is [identify] where exactly is that band, and where exactly is that field strength? The approach we have taken is, first of all, to say that, within the editorial area, let’s plan for absolutely universal coverage. So how many transmitters – if you wanted to cover it as near as possible to 100% – how many transmitters would you need, both to get indoor coverage and road coverage as well? And we’ve tried to do that in a sort of commonsense way by starting with where the existing FM transmitters are. So rather than just look for new sites, because actually if coverage from FM is good from that site, so you should get decent coverage from DAB from that site as well. And then we’ve added on transmitters at decreasing levels of coverage until you get as close as we can to 100%.

Then, once we’ve done that, we’ve said ‘okay, actually some of those are now covering areas which aren’t covered by FM’ so actually you might not need them. So then you can then sort of roll back from that full universal coverage. The question then is ‘where do you draw the line?’ So, if you look at Manchester. Again, you’ve got the editorial area, which is a bit hard to see on this, but is the solid purple line around the edge. That is the existing local DAB coverage in Manchester, so you see 66.4% of households at the moment. In terms of households [for FM coverage], we have got 96.2% indoor at the moment, 98.2% (that’s a slightly sort of spurious measurement because it’s not actually a road measurement, but it’s households), so 96.2% for FM. So 66.4% existing [DAB] coverage from the two transmitters which are currently operating from the Manchester multiplex. It is one in central Manchester – sort of there – and there is one at Winter Hill at the top in the northwest corner.

We then looked at ‘okay, what would you do if you just increased the power of the existing transmitters and moved them up the mast a bit?’ And, actually, that gets you, as you can see, quite significantly increased coverage. In order to do that, we need to change the frequency plan, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. So that gets you up to 82% [DAB coverage] and then we keep adding on transmitters until we get as close as we can to 100%. This goes to 99% and that means 15 transmitters which are shown by the crosses dotted all over that map.

But then, as I say, you look at it and you say ‘well, actually, the two smallest of these – which are these two up here – actually have no household coverage at all, and the smallest one only adds 8km of road coverage.’ Now, obviously, if you’re driving and you lose your radio reception, then that’s a problem. But there’s a question as to whether that is essential for local coverage – it might be for national, but is it for local? So the question is ‘where do you draw that line in terms of a sort of cost/benefit analysis,’ if you like? You might decide, actually, you wouldn’t bother with those, but the question is ‘how far down the list of 15 [transmitters] do you go,’ as to what’s commercial viable and what provides an acceptable level of service to consumers?

So that’s the approach that we’ve taken. As I say, in order to do that, we need to change the frequency plan. Those are the big [frequency] blocks we use for DAB at the moment, dotted around the country. And you can see that they – the colours represent frequencies – so you can see that we have to reuse the same frequencies over and over again around the country. And that does cause interference so, at the moment, Manchester uses the same frequency as Birmingham. And, because of that, we can’t increase the power of the Manchester transmitters to get beyond that 66% to the 82% [coverage]. And that problem is repeated around the country. So what we’d like to do is re-draw the frequency map, which means that, as far as consumers are concerned, means doing a re-scan of their radio but does then allow us to boost the coverage quite significantly from existing transmitters and reduces that problem of interference which, in same places, can be quite significant. In order to that, it’s quite a long process – we need international co-ordination – but that part of the planning process we are going through at the moment.

So, the next steps are to finalise that frequency plan and begin the international co-ordination. We’ve got to complete the FM coverage maps and just check that link budget for FM, both for local and national [stations]. And then, for each of the local DAB areas and for the BBC national multiplex and for Digital One, the commercial multiplex, to produce the coverage maps and the household count and the road count as well for all of these existing multiplexes. Once we have done all of that, we plan to publish the whole thing later in the spring or early summer in a consultation so that we can then begin a debate as to whether this approach is actually right or not, and where it gets us.

Obviously, one of the big questions in all of that is actually ‘how much does it cost the broadcasters?’ I should say that that’s not something the Coverage Planning Group is looking at. It’s not something that we’ve been asked to look at, so it’s purely a technical approach at this stage but we think, sort of by the end of April, we should have the answers of how many extra transmitters you would need in order to achieve switchover.”

So the overarching question posed by the forthcoming Ofcom consultation seems to be: how poor can DAB coverage be made but still be accepted by consumers? If Peter Davies’ workplan, as explained here in February 2011, sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because he had addressed the Radio Festival in July 2008 and promised:

“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 Digital Radio Working Group final report later this year.” [see my Dec 2008 blog]

Incredibly, three years late[r], the promised work is only just being completed. An amazing lack of urgency has been demonstrated by Ofcom, despite DAB radio resulting in more correspondence from angry consumers to the broadcasting minister Ed Vaizey than any other issue.

What most astonishes me is that the digital radio sector is still trying to persuade people living in Manchester to purchase a DAB radio, just as it has for the last twelve years, when it knows that there is a one-in-three chance that a Manchester household will be unable to receive ANY local stations via DAB, according to Davies. I assume a similar situation prevails in other cities.

Time for a class action by disappointed DAB radio receiver buyers?

[no accompanying graphics because DCMS explained: “Peter Davies’ Ofcom presentation is not attached as the content is still work in progress. Ofcom plan to publish all of the data later in the year.”]

DAB radio sector rubbishes its own digital radio receiver sales figures

When UK companies that had once anticipated they were poised to make a mint out of ‘DAB radio’ realise that things are not going the way they had wanted, they lash out. That seems to be what happened yesterday. ‘Shoot the messenger’ appeared to be the digital radio industry’s reflex response when backed against a wall of facts that tell an unpalatable story.

At the Westminster Media Forum conference on digital radio, a graph of DAB/digital radio receiver sales was displayed in a presentation by The Guardian’s Jack Schofield (see below):

The graph clearly showed that 2010 unit sales were down on 2009, and that 2009 unit sales were down on 2008. This data was collected by GfK.

Anthony Sethill, founder and chief executive of Frontier Silicon, took exception to this graph’s narrative of declining consumer interest in DAB radio receivers. He commented:

“My company supplies the chipsets that drive about 80% of digital radios on the market today. So, I think the panel today, with the exception of Andrew [Harrison, RadioCentre chief executive] is a wonderful example of how the minority seem to take the stage and voice the negativity and things. And, if we were to re-run Jack’s presentation again, put some facts in the correct order, and the correct facts, I think we would have a very different read. You know, it’s very difficult, when you have people like Jack that have a national platform in terms of a national newspaper, to voice these views.

So we’ll start with the GfK data. Now, GfK is actually a retail audit and, over the years, has been used by the consumer electronics and the retail trade in the UK to measure the sales of consumer electronic devices. In the last few years, GfK has been dying. The reason it has been dying is that it relies on the data – sales out data – from national retailers such as Dixons and John Lewis and Tesco and so on. Last year, Dixons pulled the plug on supplying data to GfK. That meant the largest retailer in the UK, which accounts for 25% of all sales, actually stopped giving them data. To carry on selling that data, [GfK] then had to formulate panels and most people in the industry know that, statistically, it’s not valid and that, basically, it’s falling apart. Now, you’ve quoted GfK [DAB/digital radio receiver] sales falling and I’ve given you the reasons why that data is not accurate. […]

This is a practical example of discrediting the data, which a number of people use to bash DAB. So this is one small example of how you’re misinterpreting and you’re misleading people. I don’t know if you understand what GfK is, or what it has done, or why it has fallen apart but, if you do, then that’s really poor. And if you don’t, before you quote it, you should learn the facts.”

The graph to which Sethill was referring was created by me and published in this blog last weekend (Jack Schofield had asked before the conference if he could use it in his presentation). I had first published these DAB/digital radio receiver sales data in a blog in January 2011, in which I wrote:

“1.94m digital radios were sold in 2010, compared to 1.99m in 2009 and 2.08m in 2008. Increase? No. Growth? No. Over 2m in 2010? No.”

In March 2011, these same sales figures were reprinted in The Telegraph newspaper, which wrote that “new figures showed that sales of digital radio equipment actually fell last year.”

It should be noted:
• The sales data in my graph were distributed by Digital Radio UK, the radio industry organisation marketing DAB radio in the UK
• Digital Radio UK purchases these data concerning DAB/digital radio receiver sales from GfK
• Digital Radio UK has regularly quoted these GfK data in its press releases (most recently on 23 Dec 2010 and 21 Dec 2010) and in its newsletters
• Digital Radio UK has never publicly challenged the validity of the GfK sales data that it is distributing and using in its marketing campaigns
• Until now, these data on DAB/digital radio receiver sales have been widely reported in the public domain without challenge from the wider digital radio sector.

So what is eating Frontier Silicon? It seemed wholly inappropriate for Anthony Sethill to beat up panellist Jack Schofield in public for using the digital radio industry’s OWN DATA in his presentation. If Frontier Silicon has an issue with the digital radio industry’s sales data, it should take that up with Digital Radio UK, which purchased the data from GfK and distributed them.

Perhaps the real issue is that the rewards from DAB radio have evidently still not materialised for the digital radio industry. By year-end 2009, Frontier Silicon Limited had an accumulated loss of £28m. In financial year 2009, it generated an operating loss of £536,000 on turnover of £22m. Its shareholders include Digital One (owned by Arqiva) and Imagination Technologies (which owns Pure Digital). Imagination owns 9.3% of Frontier Silicon, a stake that it wrote down by £3.4m in 2008, and then finally wrote down by a further £3.6m in 2010. As Imagination’s accounts explained:

“Due to the lower resulting valuation of the business and the impact of Frontier’s capital structure, the Group’s investment [in Frontier Silicon] has been revalued to £nil.”

I guess it must be tough for Frontier Silicon to see a shareholder value its business at “£nil.” That is no reason for its unprovoked attack on Jack Schofield’s presentation which had merely used the industry’s own data.

…………….
 
I contacted GfK for its response to the comments from Frontier Silicon. Its response was (in full):

Date: 6th April 2011

GfK Retail and Technology UK response:

GfK Retail and Technology UK currently track over 100 individual technology product categories and partner with major UK multiple retailers within every single audited channel they report on, to complement this research and to ensure GfK cover the overall market they also have a representative sample of independent retailers working with them. This means GfK are receiving weekly data from over 24,000 individual stores within the UK. The majority of these retailers deliver weekly EPOS data on their complete sales and this allows GfK to report to a detailed level on the performance of all the leading technology categories. If faced with a retailer who is not willing to participate GfK employ a widely used global research methodology to ensure they are representing the overall market.

When challenged on the GfK reported performance of the DAB market Commercial Director Anthony Norman commented “the overall technology markets have all come under increasing pressure in the last 12 months, the austerity measures announced and now being implemented by the coalition government have had a major impact on consumer confidence which has in turn impacted on retail sales of technology areas”. Norman continued in specific reference to the DAB market “the reported data by GfK is based on over 70% live reported sales by retailers, rather than focussing on the downturn of this market it would be more beneficial to put the whole picture in perspective. The overall technology market has experienced only 4 months of growth in the last 33 months. The average decline in this area is 6%, for DAB the market in 2010 declined by only 2%. Given the overall sector performance this is something that should be recognised. As a business GfK are committed to delivering actionable insight to the industries they operate within”

The GfK Group

The GfK Group offers the fundamental knowledge that industry, retailers, services companies and the media need to make market decisions. It offers a comprehensive range of information and consultancy services in the three business sectors of Custom Research, Retail and Technology and Media. The no. 4 market research organization worldwide operates in more than 100 countries and employs over 10,000 staff. In 2009, the GfK Group’s sales amounted to EUR 1.16 billion. For further information visit www.gfkrt.com or www.gfkrt.com/uk

AM/FM switch-off of national radio stations? An empty threat whose expiry date has long passed

Some of Digital Britain’s radio recommendations were unworkable. However, the notion has remained that FM and AM analogue transmitters of the UK’s national radio stations will be switched off once digital radio listening passes the 50% threshold. This was never practical. It was a ‘threat’ propagated by government to the public in the hope of forcing them into buying more DAB radios, instilling fear that they would otherwise lose their favourite stations. The threat failed.

The problem with any threat is that, once it has failed, it remains difficult for the protagonist to climb down. So the threat continues to be propagated. For what reason now? So as not to make those who issued the threat look completely foolish. The need to save face has locked the government apparatus into a fiction that BBC and commercial radio will willingly throw away half their audiences by closing their FM/AM transmitters. This was never true.

THE BBC

‘Universal’ reception of the BBC’s core public services is mandatory. It would prove impossible to levy the BBC Licence Fee on every UK household if (almost) the entire population could not receive the BBC services for which they pay.

The BBC Charter & Agreement requires:

“12. Making the UK Public Services widely available
(1) The BBC must do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that viewers, listeners and other users (as the case may be) are able to access the UK Public Services that are intended for them, or elements of their content, in a range of convenient and cost effective ways which are available or might become available in the future.”

Would the BBC switch off analogue transmissions of its national networks once more than 50% of listening was attributed to digital platforms? Of course not. You would be a complete fool to slash your radio audience by half, particularly as such an action would contradict the BBC Charter & Agreement.

Could the government insist that the BBC switched off the analogue transmissions of its national networks? Only if it wanted a revolution on its hands. It would be difficult to think of a policy more likely to lose it the next General Election.

COMMERCIAL RADIO

The revenues of commercial radio are directly related to the sector’s volume of listening. If commercial radio switched off its analogue transmitters once digital listening had passed the 50% threshold, at a stroke it would risk losing 50% of its volume of listening and, subsequently, 50% of its revenues. Would it do that? No, of course not.

RadioCentre’s self-interested ‘policy’ has been to argue that the BBC national networks should turn off their analogue transmitters first, years in advance of commercial radio stations. Radio Chicken, anyone? Naturally, RadioCentre failed to mention that the outcome of this proposal would be likely to significantly increase its member commercial radio stations’ analogue audiences and revenues. There is nothing quite like trying to persuade your competitor to commit joint suicide … first.

Additionally, the value of commercial radio companies is vested in the scarcity of their analogue FM/AM licences. Because no new analogue licences are awarded by the regulator, each existing licence has a significant intrinsic value, even if the business using it is not profitable. The same is not true of DAB licences. Anybody can apply to Ofcom for a DAB licence by filling in a form and paying a relatively small fee.

An example of the value of analogue licences to commercial radio owners is Absolute Radio. In 2008, Times of India paid £53.2m for Virgin Radio, comprising one national AM licence and one London FM licence. Having re-launched the station as Absolute Radio, the company lost £4.3m in 2009, but its balance sheet still retains considerable value because of the scarcity of its two analogue radio licences. If Absolute Radio were put up for sale, someone would be interested in buying it because of that scarcity.

By contrast, when DAB commercial radio services such as Zee Radio, Islam Radio, Muslim Radio, Flaunt and Eurolatina no longer wanted their digital radio licences in 2010, there was no queue of potential buyers. They simply handed their licences back to Ofcom because those licences were not scarce.

This is why it would prove financially suicidal for commercial radio to switch off its FM/AM transmitters. It would have to write down the value of those scarce analogue licences to zero in its balance sheets which, at a stroke, would negate almost the entire value of the licence owners. Not a good company strategy.

So, when headlines such as ‘Absolute Radio mulls AM switch-off’ appear in the trade press, they should be read with a bucket of salt. The headline might as well say: ’Absolute Radio mulls destruction of shareholder value.’

And, when yet another DAB proponent appears on radio or television to persuade you, in all seriousness, that the UK’s most listened to national radio services – both BBC and commercial – will imminently be switching off their AM/FM transmitters, please feel justified to laugh in their face.

This is about as likely to happen as Tesco putting security guards at their store entrances to tell the public to shop elsewhere because they want fewer customers.

FOOTNOTE:

It emerged last week that, after the Norwegian state classical music station ‘Alltid Klassisk’ abandoned FM transmission on 1 July 2009 for DAB transmission, its audience contracted from 25,000 to 10,000 per day.

Now, consider that only 20% of listening to BBC Radio 2 is via digital platforms (in Q1 2010), lower than the 24% average for all stations [see Sep 2010 blog]. If that average ever managed to reach the 50% threshold, it might leave 60% of Radio 2’s audience still listening via analogue. That’s 8m listeners that Radio 2 would have to turn its back on as a result of FM switch-off. Time for the BBC to start erecting barricades outside Broadcasting House.

[thanks to Eivind Engberg]