NORWAY: government proposes “possible FM [radio] switch-off” and “possible prolongation of FM licences”

In February 2011, some hysterical reports appeared concerning the White Paper published by the government in Norway on DAB radio. Some of these would have had us believe that Norway had made a definite commitment to switch off all FM radio in 2017. This was not true [as documented by diymedia and Media Network]. In fact, the government had set out several criteria that will have to be met before digital switchover can be sanctioned. The Norwegian criteria are similar to those adopted in the UK which, as commented here previously, are unlikely ever to be fulfilled, making switchover an ‘unreality.’


To make the situation perfectly clear, in the words of Norway’s media regulator:

“The following three conditions are absolute and must be fulfilled regardless of when switch-off takes place:

1. Digital coverage for the NRK’s radio services correspond to that of NRK P1 on FM
2. The multiplex that carries commercial national services (Riksblokka) must cover at least 90 per cent of the population
3. The digital radio offer must represent added value to the listeners

The above three conditions, as well as the two following conditions, must be fulfilled by 1 January 2015 for the switch-off to take place in January 2017:

4. Affordable and technically satisfactory solutions for in-car radio reception must be available
5. At least 50 per cent of daily radio-listeners employ digital platforms, exclusively or in combination with FM-radio

Provided the absolute criteria (1-3) are fulfilled in 2015, switch-off may nevertheless take place in 2019, even if criteria 4 and 5 are not fulfilled.”

Furthermore, far from FM being switched off completely, the regulator said:

“The Report proposes that the majority of local radio stations should have the right to continue transmitting in FM beyond 2017. The Ministry of Culture will determine in 2015 what categories of local radio may maintain the right to do so.”

The milestones anticipated by the government are:

“2011: The Ministry of Culture decides on the possible prolongation of commercial radio-licenses in the FM-network until 2017 (or 2019).

2013: The Ministry of Culture determines:
· Whether the coverage obligation for NRK radio-services shall be attached to the DAB-multiplex alone, or whether it may be fulfilled by employing other technologies in addition to DAB
· What is to be understood by the criterion ‘affordable and technically satisfactory solutions for in-car reception.’

2015: The Ministry of Culture decides whether the following conditions are met:
· The digital coverage of NRK-radio corresponds to that of NRK P1 in FM
· The population coverage of the national, commercial multiplex >90 per cent
· The Digital radio-offer represents added value to the public
· Availability of affordable and technically satisfactory in-car solutions
· Usage of digital platforms >50 % of daily radio-listeners.

2017: Possible FM switch-off
2019: Prospective postponed final switch-off of FM
2011: Decision on possible prolongation of FM-licences
2013: Definition of coverage obligations NRK & in-car solutions
2015: Assessment whether ASO-criteria are met
2017: Possible FM-switch off
2019: Possible postponed FM switch-off.”


In parliament, the Progress Party’s Ib Thomsen challenged the Minister of Culture, Anniken Huitfeldt:

“The closure of FM radio worries the Progress Party, it worries IKT Norway and it worries consumers. To close FM radio, we need to scrap 15 to 20 million radio receivers, including even DAB radios that are not of the most modern type [DAB rather than DAB+]. This will have major consequences for consumers and for the environment.”

Thomsen asked the Minister of Culture: “What will the closure of FM radio cost the country? We know that it will cost consumers billions of krone, but what will it cost the state and society?”

The Minister rejected categorically the notion that consumers would have to pay one billion krone, or that 15 to 20 million radios would have to be scrapped. She responded:

“It is very clear in the White Paper that the digitalisation of radio will be consumer focused. It is typical of the Progress Party to spread fear about something that has already been addressed. These figures are not correct. There are, according to numbers that I have been quoted, 3.5 to 7 million radio receivers in Norway. These devices will not be thrown out. People can buy adapters that will provide access to digital radio.”

“It is the simulcasting [on FM and DAB] that is the most expensive. When we published the White Paper on the digitalisation of radio, P4 responded immediately that it wanted to launch more stations. There will be more competition and more channels. It went very well when we introduced digital television. It is going to go just as well with radio.”

Ib Thomsen was unsatisfied with the Minister’s response. He replied:

“The Progress Party is not the only one that is worried. IKT Norway and the rest of the world is concerned too. Adapters will cost consumers 1,200 krone. It is a pity that the Minister is not taking into account that Norway is locking itself into a technology that has already been scrapped by the European Union.”

The Minister responded:

“The European Commissioner has stated that radio must be at the forefront of the digital revolution and has highlighted DAB. It is not true that no other countries are digitising radio. There is no discussion in Europe as to whether to introduce DAB or not, only discussion about the date for digitalisation. Neither is it correct to say that adapters will cost 1,000 krone. Prices will go down.”

To date, sales figures for DAB radios in Norway have been even less impressive than in the UK. In 2010, only 81,000 DAB radios were sold out of a total of 833,000 radio receivers. The cumulative total of DAB receivers sold is 336,000, although these are DAB rather than DAB+ and will have to be replaced if Norway changes to the latter system.

Year: number of DAB radios sold in Norway
2004: 10,000
2005: 51,000
2006: 55,000
2007: 61,000
2008: 42,000
2009: 66,000
2010: 81,000

IKT Norway has long argued that DAB radio is not appropriate as the digital platform to replace FM radio. After the White Paper was published, its secretary general, Per Morten Hoff, commented:

“Norway becomes the first country in the world to decide to shut down its FM radio networks. This is a bold decision at a time when technological developments are more uncertain than ever. Closing FM radio gives you no route back. NRK has spent several hundred million krone building its DAB network, ‘a killer’, and its owner, the Norwegian state, and the Culture Minister have concluded that there is no going back. The market has said so far that it is not adopting DAB, so forcing them has been the only way forward.”

There would appear to be a number of reasons why DAB is being pursued so doggedly in Norway:
· Norway was one of the first countries to invest in a DAB radio transmission system in 1995
· Jørn Jensen, since 2009 the president of World DMB (the organisation lobbying for the replacement of FM with DAB), is the chief adviser to NRK on platform distribution
· NRK, the state broadcaster, signed DAB transmission contracts with Norkring that do not expire until 2020, so the government cannot pull the plug on DAB without exposing an embarrassing waste of public funds

Some of the issues facing the successful implementation of DAB in Norway would appear to be:
· Only 80 DAB transmitters are currently in service, although at least 650 will be necessary (TV in VHF Band III uses 2,635 transmitters and transponders)
· Achievement of 99.5% DAB coverage (to match FM coverage) will prove very expensive, and Norkring has only guaranteed 90% in its current transmission contract with NRK. The government will be forced to fund the difference
· The government White Paper noted that current FM coverage is 99.5%, although NRK FM coverage is 99.95%, a more expensive penetration for DAB transmission to match
· The high costs of simulcasting about which Arild Hellgren, former NRK director of technology, commented: “Compared to what happened when we digitised TV, we will have a very long period of parallel distribution on FM and DAB. It is very expensive”
· The two national commercial stations will be granted automatic licence renewals ONLY IF they support the DAB platform and pay for DAB coverage up to 90%
· Local stations’ transfer to the DAB platform will be determined by the government in 2015 in a ‘Big Brother’-style elimination contest

So who was the bright spark in the Ministry of Culture who decided to headline its press release: “FM switch-off in 2017 – the radio medium will be digital”?

By 2017, that person could have a large quantity of egg on their face.

[thanks to Bjarne Boen, Darryl Pomicter + others]

NORWAY: digital radio switchover “postponed indefinitely”

In November 2010, a daily newspaper in Denmark reported that the government’s plan for digital radio switchover had been postponed indefinitely [see my earlier blog]. Now, the same is reported to have happened in Norway.

“The transition from analogue to digital radio began more than ten years ago. At the end of 2010, we still have no idea what is going on,” said the headline in Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten.

In 2009, then culture minister Trond Giske had promised that the Norwegian government would publish a white paper in 2010 on digital radio switchover [see my earlier blog]. It has failed to appear. “Recently, it has become clear that the strategy had to be postponed indefinitely,” said Aftenposten.

Ib Thomsen, cultural affairs spokesman for the Progress party, said: “This is undoubtedly a hot political potato and DAB is, in many ways, a risky sport.” He believes that it is wrong to compare the migration of digital radio with digital television switchover, as many do, because the number of radios in use is much greater. “Nevertheless, we should not set a [switchover] date in order to go out and force people to buy new radios,” Thomsen said.

Olemic Thommsessen, cultural policy spokesman for the Conservative party, said: “I am more concerned with getting the policy on the table so that we can advance work on planning a digital radio future.” He noted that it had been a long time since the government’s last review of digital radio strategy, and that subsequent development of DAB and DAB receiver sales had not lived up to expectations.

Trine Schei Grande, leader of the Liberal party, said: “The time is over when politicians can decide how people will listen to the radio.” She believes that the only way to get listeners to invest in digital radio is to make digital content and stations sufficiently attractive. Until then, she said, FM transmissions must be continued.

Øyvind Vasaasen, distribution manager of state broadcaster NRK, said it would not be a very costly issue for NRK to broadcast DAB+ transmissions, should it be required by the government. He emphasised that NRK had a continuing obligation to serve those who had already bought DAB radios that do not support the newer DAB+ standard. “These can be addressed by broadcasting in both DAB and DAB+ for a period,” he said.

The possibility of the government switching from the DAB to the DAB+ standard was taken up by a commentary in Aftenposten, whose headline asked: “Your new, expensive DAB radio may be useless in a few years. What is really happening?” It explained:

“The problem is that there are already more than 300,000 DAB radios in the country. NRK distribution manager Øyvind Vasaasen had said that NRK has a contract with listeners who have already bought a DAB radio, and which makes it difficult to switch [to DAB+]. What about all those who listen on one of the country’s 15+ million FM radios? Does NRK not have a contract with them? And what of DAB users who feel they had signed the contract without full disclosure?”

The commentary continued: ”When [state broadcaster] NRK had argued for a transition from FM to DAB, it had said that the DAB system would give us CD-quality audio from the radio. It has not. DAB technology does allow very high sound quality, but most stations use lower sound quality than FM, according to University of Oslo professor Sverre Holm. Many people find the [DAB] sound clearer and less harsh, but many also complain of less detail and poorer stereo image. Moreover, no local radio station can afford the investment of over half a million kroner to broadcast on DAB, so that the diversity we were promised has not become a reality.”

Even DAB lobbyists are acknowledging the slow take-up achieved to date. Jørn Jensen, president of World DMB, the international marketing organisation for DAB, told Germany’s Digitalmagazin recently:

“Digital radio is still in its infancy. If we compare the situation to the computer market, we are still in the time of MS-DOS!”

NORWAY: “Yes to radio!” But no to DAB?

In July 2010, a marketing campaign was launched in Norway with the tagline “Yes to radio!” It used 18 celebrities to promote awareness of DAB radio through advertisements in radio, TV, newspapers and social media. The campaign was funded by Digitalradio Norge AS, the lobby group (owned by broadcasters NRK, P4 and SBS) working for a transition from FM to DAB radio in Norway.
Dagsavisen newspaper
commented: “For many years, the major radio companies have attempted to get Norwegians to replace FM radios with digital ones. It has been slow work so far. During the last decade, about 8 million radio sets were sold. Of these, between 300,000 and 400,000 were digital radios, according to figures from the Electronics Industry.”

Rainer Frost of Radio Nero
commented: “’Yes to radio!’ is totally misleading. It gives the impression that the entire radio industry is behind the campaign. In reality, it is only the major players who broadcast on DAB and who are engaged in fierce lobbying. They want to impact public opinion in connection with the white paper on the future of radio published by the Ministry of Culture this autumn. This campaign is the latest initiative from the embattled NRK, P4 and SBS in an attempt to gain support for the Norwegian DAB project, which has been running for 29 years.”

Andreas Reitan, chairman of the Norwegian Association of Local Radio (Norsk Lokalradioforbund),
said: “The Association has not taken a formal position but, as chairman, I am sceptical of the campaign. I am somewhat surprised. I understand the criticisms. The key question for us is the cost issue. The majority of our members are small stations. They have said ‘no’ to digital because of their finances. None of the small stations have the funds to finance a digital radio launch.”

Per Morten Hoff, general secretary of of IKT-Norge,
said: “It’s a vague attempt at lobbying from NRK, P4 and SBS in anticipation of the white paper, it wants people to say ‘yes’ to radio, without saying what it is all about. It is trying to lead the audience towards the light.”

Kristian Aartun, chairman of Radio 3,
said: “We believe the campaign is misleading as it is not clear what the ‘yes to radio!’ really means. In our opinion, this is deliberate deception to further their own interests, not the radio industry’s or society’s interest.”

Rainer Frost
again: “Digital radio’s future as a whole is in the balance. The biggest problem is the costs associated with the DAB radio network. A new DAB network for local radio would have to be financed by us. That is something we cannot afford. The DAB network will not be built. A decision on digital switchover has not been taken. The money is not there. People increasingly prefer FM radio over DAB at home. But this campaign argues, however, that everything will be fine with DAB. The reality is much more complicated than that.”

Ole Jørgen Torvmark, head of Digitalradio Norge,
responded to criticisms of its campaign: “[We] believe it is important for all parties concerned to put in place a clear plan for the transition to digital radio, particularly for listeners who buy new radio receivers. Such a plan, which we believe will be 6 to 7 years, must lead to the shutdown of analogue radio broadcasts, perhaps with exceptions for smaller stations in the least populated areas, such as in the UK.”

Online news source Nettavisen commented: “IKT-Norge has been one of the strongest critics of the DAB initiative in Norway. They believe that Norway is now struggling to implement DAB, because NRK [the state broadcaster] has invested too much money in an outdated technology that more and more European countries are walking away from.”

Per Morten Hoff, general secretary of IKT-Norge,
added: “NRK refuses to state how much money they have spent on DAB but, based on figures from Sweden, I have assumed that they have spent around 400 million [krone] on that system in Norway.”

Writing in daily newspaper Dagbladet, one commentator
said:

“Does this summer’s ‘Yes to radio!’ campaign, organised by lobbying group Digitalradio Norge, really want us to believe that anything other than a wholehearted embrace of digital radio is a kind of betrayal of radio? And that a ‘no’ to the introduction of DAB technology and the closure of FM networks is also a ‘no’ to all the voices, moments, images and insight that radio gives us?

Dear Digitalradio Norge and the owners of NRK, P4, Radio 1, The Voice and Radio Norge. Do not insult us. We love radio. We say ‘yes’ to radio. It is DAB that we are lukewarm to.

Yes, we know that digital radio also includes internet radio and radio delivered by digital TV, but the political battle is about the closure of FM radio and DAB. Fifteen years after trial broadcasts began, more than ten times as many FM radios are still sold as DAB radios. There are probably between 20m and 25m FM radio receivers in Norwegian homes, compared to a few hundred thousand DAB receivers.”

[with thanks to Eivind Engberg]