dab digital radio

Pirate Radio and DAB

OFCOM published the results of its research into listening to unlicensed (“pirate”) radio in London, which probably surprised absolutely nobody who lives in South London and North West London.

Both those two areas have a longstanding tradition of supporting pirate radio going back 20-30 years, so figures like “16% of people listen to pirates” only surprise me by being a bit too low. I would have thought nearer to 30% listen, if you take the RAJAR definition of one single 15 minute listening session a week. There are good reasons for why pirate radio is so popular, going right back to the early days of multi-ethnic London, and Capital Radio’s shockingly white North London biased output. (As someone who grew up in South London, I feel qualified to comment).

What caught me eye, though, was OFCOM’s comment that:

If digital radio across a number of platforms (including DAB, digital TV, the internet and other technologies such as DRM) becomes the way the majority of listeners hear radio in the future, it is likely that illegal broadcasting activity would be substantially reduced. This is partly because it is considerably more difficult for a single illegal radio service to broadcast on DAB than it is on FM, due to the multiplexing involved in DAB transmission,

Woah. Hold on a second there. DAB multiplexer vendors might want you to believe DAB is tricky, but ETSI standard 300 401 tells you it’s not really. Methodical, structured programmers can hack through it pretty rapidly. This is some complicated maths up the end of the chain, but you can buy off the shelf a COFDM modulator and avoid all that.

Pirate broadcasters will follow the growth in DAB receiver ownership. When it reaches some relatively substantial market penetration, it will be worth their while to switch to DAB. (I’d expect to see a cheap Dell workstation, pre-loaded with a ETI stream recording on a 300GByte hard-drive, coupled to a cheap Asian COFDM modulator into the bottom of an old TV-style RF stack). When they do switch to DAB, it won’t be the technical complexity that defeats them, but the politics involved with sharing a multiplex, and that’s hard enough for legitimate companies to handle.

I have a bet on with someone else in the industry that we’ll see a pirate DAB station in London by 2012. I’m not expecting to have to pay out on it.

Matt is blogging in more detail about the OFCOM report

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