FRANCE: digital radio report for government identifies ‘the paradox of DAB’

David Kessler, former chief executive of Radio France, submitted a 22-page interim report on the planned launch of digital terrestrial radio in France to the government on 23 October 2010. The report was made public last week. This is the third such report on the topic that the government has commissioned in the last year. Most of Kessler’s report summarised the existing positions of the main players in France (public radio, commercial radio networks, local stations, etc.), but it also outlined some wider market issues. France has yet to launch digital terrestrial radio, despite many start dates having come and gone over the years. The commercial FM radio networks have argued that the cost would be prohibitive and the expected financial returns insufficient.

The following are excerpts from the report:

1.6 Manufacturers
“Both equipment manufacturers (Simavelec and Secimavi) have focused on the renewal of television receivers (digital TV, flat screens, 3D TV, connected TV) and, at this stage, have invested little in radio receivers. This is evidenced by the IFA [consumer electronics trade fair] held in Berlin in September 2010, where radio receivers were virtually absent from the stands of the main manufacturers. Although, at this international show, the big manufacturers are present in markets where DAB has already launched, they do not consider it sufficiently beneficial to manufacture and sell digital radio receivers. Manufacturers consider that the improvement in sound quality offered by digital radio will be harder [for consumers] to appreciate than the improvement in quality for digital television.”

2.3 The situation in other European countries
“A review of the situation overseas illustrates the same problem: many countries have launched DAB and have long experience of it, but none have been able to implement it as the dominant model for terrestrial broadcasting. This demonstrates what could be called ‘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.”

4.0 Conditions to launch DAB
“Difficulties surrounding the launch of DAB:
· Uncertainties about the economic model
· The consumer benefit is uneven between towns and country
· The existence of IP as a competing platform, even if it is discounted, already exists and can appear to be a real alternative
· Finally, little interest by telecom owners to use the FM band – it is too low frequency (unlike the spectrum released by analogue TV) – which makes it very difficult to monetise it and removes any global interest in accelerating towards digital switchover.”

4.1 How could DAB conquer the public?
“For DAB to be a success with consumers, several conditions must be met:
· DAB radio receivers must be widely available, there must be an incentive for consumers to buy them, and they must be installed in vehicles […]
· The sound quality of DAB must be at least equal, or superior, to that of existing FM radio
· DAB radio must be known to the public and must be made attractive. This requires a powerful, dynamic launch campaign.
· Radio offerings to listeners must be enriched. Since the launch has to be a lesson in effective marketing, it must be huge from the outset in those areas where the media regulator has identified that the increase in the number of radio stations is relatively tangible and quite impressive.”

The report noted that the transmission cost for a national radio station to broadcast to 90% of the population in France, using the digital T-DMB standard, will be €4.4m per annum. Some existing national commercial networks have suggested that the cost of digital transmission would only prove economically viable if it were reduced to between €0.5m and €1m per annum and achieved coverage of 90% to 95% of France.

Kessler’s full report to the government will be published by year-end.

[I have used ‘DAB’ as shorthand for ‘digital terrestrial radio’ though France decided to adopt a technical standard other than DAB]