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dab digital radio

DAB+ in the UK

James alerted me last night to a posting by Steve Green, reviewing Quentin Howard’s (president of WorldDMB) appearance on Working Lunch in his usual style.

I’ll start by concurring that my experiences of Steve are pretty much in-line with those James describes; personal attracks, vitriol and an overwhelming obsession on the issue of sound quality which appears sometimes to ignore facts and realities. So please bear that in mind.

I’m not going to comment on Quentin’s appearance. One appearance by one individual does not constitute the entire policy of the UK radio industry to DAB+.

Virtually everyone agrees on a few very salient and unarguable points:

  • DAB+ / aac+ is more spectrum efficient. That means more radio stations in the same space. (Steve and others seem to believe it will lead to a miraculous improvement in audio quality. The market will decide that, not a small, viciously vocal, minority).
  • There are at least 4m DAB radios in the UK that will not receive DAB+ broadcasts.
  • Nobody wants to disenfranchise consumers who have invested in DAB so far, or are likely to do so in the foreseable future.
  • No broadcaster wants to start a DAB+ station that either can’t be received because there are no capable receivers, or is at a significant disadvantage to their competitors because the relative market share is tiny.
  • Even if DAB+ capable radios start to enter the supply chain in Q3 this year, as Steve seems to think (and believe me, there’s a big time difference between a fabless silicon manufacturer saying designs will be ready in Q3 and radios appearing in retail), it will be many years before they account for even half the market, let alone the majority.

Interestingly, the problem of changing from an MPEG2 to MPEG4 technology is far more acute and immediate in DVB-T (Freeview) where Sky are planning unilaterally to ditch MPEG2 transmissions so they can squeeze more MEPG4 stations on (and probably some HD services) but make them subscription only. I suppose they’ll simply offer to swap people’s boxes out if they take out a “Sky Lite” subscription, which would make economic sense to them. (I’d guess a MPEG4 Freeview box would cost around $30 / £16 to Sky).

So why is nobody fretting and frothing at the mouth about what Sky want to do right now that will disenfrancise a whole load (7.5m?) of Freeview people? Maybe nobody who froths and foams has noticed yet?

James notes, entirely correctly, that you could start a DAB+ service now, but it would be clearly classed as a data service, and therefore would not be a Licensed Sound Service. Incidentally, you can run a subscription radio service under MPEG2 and it is still a radio service. But run a subscription service under MPEG4, and it’s data. Maybe somebody will do a Sky with DAB? Start a bunch of subscription radio services (I reckon you’d get 10 in 400kbit/s) and provide a free DAB+ receiver in return. But using subscriptions to subsidise hardware is, in my opinion, the road to ruin and not a good place to move the entire industry.

Incidentally, it’s worth bearing in mind that even if you improve the audio coding efficiency, you still use the same capacity for data services like DLS, Slideshow, Broadcast Website, EPG, TPEG. That isn’t going to go down, but probably will go up as people get used to a more multi-media experience.

One thing that can generally be said for OFCOM is that they are a pragmatic regulator. That’s good for an industry that’s having to move fast these days. I’m sure that when the market conditions are right, the industry will sit down with OFCOM and discuss the start of a transition to DAB+. But that will be a long time off.

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