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Digital Britain has arrived (or is at least en-route)

Digital Britain Logo

So here’s my brief contribution to the flurry of analysis of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report.

The biggest news is that we get a target date for switchoff (sorry, “Digital Upgrade”). 2015 is the year we should be flipping the OFF switch on (almost all) analogue radio, and offering universal coverage of DAB. That date can now be plugged into business plans, and financial projections, and hopefully provide the necessary laxative effect to the recently sluggish developments around DAB in the UK.

So, rather than dissect all of the Radio section of the report, which others will do better than I, here are the bits I particularly noted:

It’s a full switch-off (“upgrade”)

Some summaries have suggested that the 2015 deadline only applies to national radio. It doesn’t – it applies to all services being carried on both national and local multiplexes (3b.10). The only thing left on FM post 2015 will be very small scale services; either commercial or community. There is not going to be a dual-speed changeover, which leaves local radio dragging along for years with a foot on each platform. That’s good.

Support for WorldDMB Profile 1

There it is, snuck away in 3b.20 – receivers sold in the UK should be at least WorldDMB Profile 1 compliant. The box on the following page is a little more explicit in saying that we are giving ourselves a migration path to DAB+, which is the smart thing to do. Nobody seriously considers DMB-A (the Frankenstein bodge invented to make an ill-informed decision seem at least slightly less ridiculous) for radio, so let’s ignore that. Some commentators have, incorrectly, said that Profile 1 includes DRM. It doesn’t, and DRM needs to mature a great deal more before it can earn a guaranteed place alongside DAB and DAB+.

Improving Signal Quality

It’s no secret that I don’t believe DAB should be crippled by being forced into universally super-serving a small fragment of the audience that expects ultra-high-quality audio from every radio station. The market can and will decide what audio quality is right for which stations and bearers.

But I do believe that we need to offer robust indoor and handheld coverage to everyone who currently enjoys that from FM now, and by crikey, it’s not rocket science to do it. Australia’s got the right idea – power. And more of it.

There’s some more crypticness in the report. It talks a lot about achieving equivalent coverage prior to 2015, but only in 3b.23 does it explicitly recognise that indoor coverage must be more effective. It also recognises that there’s some cost in achieving network upgrades, but notes that there is opportunity for negotiation between the BBC, multiplex operators and transmission providers. That’s timely, as many of the initial multiplex transmission contracts come up for renewal soon, and knowing with certainty that it’s worth spending money on the infrastructure is very valuable.

Replanning the network

This wasn’t as explict as I had hoped for. There is reference in 3b.26 to giving OFCOM the powers to re-plan and amlgamate multiplex areas, but I would really would like to have seen a more definite commitment to re-plan at a spectrum level to get a step-change in coverage (up) and costs (down). At least there’s a statement that sorting out coverage shouldn’t be as expensive as some people might have made out it could be.

And now – drum roll – the best bit…

In fact, it’s so good, it’s the only bit I’m going to quote verbatim from 3b.31:

Functionality and interactivity must become central to the DAB experience.
EPGs, slideshows, downloading music, as well as pause and rewinding live radio
must be developed and brought to market on a large scale. Broadcasters and
manufacturers must seek to develop and implement digitally delivered in-car
content, such as traffic and travel information.

Well, we waited a decade, and now it’s a formal part of the plan to digitisation. Digital Radio must prove its worth by doing something… digital. If we don’t use the platform and spectrum we’ve been given (and will continue to get for free for a while – 3b. 27) to evolve radio, what’s the point of doing it? Same value, different platform?

If the other parts of Digital Britain are designed to create confidence in building transmission infrastructure, and writing long-term financial plans that support transitionary investment to achieve that, then this is the statement that should create the confidence in investing in a new kind of digital radio, and it’s about a content led experience that’s enabled by a universal, free-to-air technology. If the rest of the report stabilises the ship, and gives it a shove in the right direction, this is the bit that signals the start of true innovation and digital change for radio.

Digital Radio changes and causes change

DAB Radio everywhere (CC) Nick Piggott @ flickr

It’s been a difficult time for radio lately, and for digital radio doubly so. Since Fru Hazlitt made her dramatic announcements on 11th February 2008 (the “2/11” for Digital Radio), it’s been a rollercoaster ride, consisting mainly of the scary bit of going down very fast and being apparently about to shoot off the edge of the tracks to certain death.

Radio is contracting. The contraction that means I’ve been saying goodbye to lots of colleagues, and that’s seeing many small analogue services go out of business, is also squeezing what can be done with digital radio. The enthusiasm for digital radio has evaporated, as the costs of an ambitious network build-out became crushingly apparent, and the revenues that should/could be generated from digital haven’t arrived (or been hit by a contracting industry).

Going Digital had a profound effect on the UK Radio Industry. The regulatory policies that set up Digital also shaped the analogue licensing regime, and committed the industry to investments stretching over long periods of times. The Digital Radio envisioned by the people who set it up doesn’t fit well with the plans of the people running the radio industry now.

Something had to change. If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that my hope was that some deal could be arranged to make the cost of the network more managable, and that the industry could reorganise itself to plan an inherently more cost-effective plan for digital. Some of that would have involved changing the digital infrastructure to reflect real-life requirements.

And now, nearly 14 months after Fru’s big announcements, and with Global the biggest commercial operator in the industry, things are changing.

The first big change is that Global is doing a deal with Arqiva, the transmission provider, which will see Arqiva take over DigitalOne (the national multiplex operator) and NowDigital (the local multiplex operator). This makes Arqiva a licence holder in their own right, and it’s the first time that multiple DAB multiplex licences will not be held by broadcasters (Ayrshire is already owned by Arqiva, due a regulatory anomaly when EMAP purchased SRH). In return for Arqiva taking over the multiplexes, Global will only pay for the capacity it uses, reducing the costs of transmission. As both DigitalOne and the NowDigital muxes are rather empty, this is a fairly considerable cash saving.

I think Arqiva have got a good deal. They will have to compromise their financials for a period of time, but I suspect that in the mid-term, demand for DAB capacity and infrastructure will grow, if not in the current configuration, then in something than can be met using the infrastructure currently in the D1 and Now networks. They now hold spectrum licences, and that puts them in a good position when it comes to any network replanning. The relationship has been spun on its head.

OFCOM has provided the other big change in the Digital landscape. Their submission to Digital Britain has proposed radical changes to the UK’s regulatory regime, both analogue and digital, in response to the changes that the financial difficulties of the previous year have brought. A lot of the headlines have focussed on the proposals by OFCOM to dramatically change the analogue regulatory regime – reducing the burden of producing local content; allowing the emergence of quasi-national brands that could theoretically have the scale to provide plurality to the BBC; explicit recognition that smaller commercial licences may never be viable financially. This seems to make the assumption that local brands cannot challenge the BBC’s dominance, or may not be able to hold onto the revenue to stay alive.

In my opinion, the most interesting and positive statement is that D2, which failed to get to air as a Single Frequency Network (akin to D1), could come back to life as a series of regional networks with effective national coverage. One suggestion is to blend the existing regional muxes together to create D2. This recognises that a true national SFN isn’t massively commercially valuable, and that’s a great move forward in my opinion.

OFCOM firmly supports continuing with DAB Digital Radio, whilst at the same time acknowledging that other solutions will appear over time. I think the likelyhood of LTE/4G technologies becoming a primary broadcast platform is slim if DAB continues, but there’s no doubt that a converged Broadcast+IP solution is looking increasingly important. This conviction from OFCOM and Government that DAB is staying is very beneficial to Arqiva and the other multiplex operators.

One theme recurrs. In both OFCOM’s and RadioCentre’s submissions to Digital Britain, as well as in the interim report itself, there is talk of using DAB to deliver innovation for radio. That innovation needs to harness the data capabilities of DAB to provide something new, enhanced and reflective of a more complex multi-media world, and more capable multi-media devices.

There has been virtually no innovation, despite 10 years of DAB in the UK.

There’s no lack of ideas for new services, but the barriers to making them happen have been many, high and hard to scale. Broadcasters have to pay for their capacity, and that makes it hard to justify speculatively taking more than the bare minimum to carry stereo audio. The multiplexing equipment is old, and doesn’t reliably support functionality beyond audio (including a number of other very important DAB features). There is a classic chicken-and-egg problem, where manufacturers won’t build receivers to support enhanced functionality because broadcasters won’t commit to services.

That needs to change.

Global Radio launched a series of applications for the Apple iPhone (for which my team deservedly got a SONY Radio Award nomination). These applications feature RadioVIS – a simple visualisation layer for radio. Whilst I’m not going to tell you the stats, I will say that the amount of visuals delivered is considerable and demonstrates a commercial opportunity. But as well as delivering visuals to the iPhone we also publish them as DAB Slideshow into 16kbit/s of 95.8 Capital FM’s DAB stream. (Admittedly, it’s taken 10 months work with Arqiva to get the right interface to the multiplexer).

It won’t take much more work to get the technology right, but launching innovative services needs to start with a commitment to face a digital future and start moving analogue to history. It looks like OFCOM can make that commitment, but will the radio industry follow suit?

DAB – Doing It Properly

Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr

In response to the publication of the interim Digital Britain report, I sent out this twitter

That prompted a small flurry of @nickpiggott replies asking me “so, what does doing it properly mean”?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that we have the most successful implementation of free-to-air digital radio anywhere in the world. There is no discussion, no set of statistics, no spin that can deny that fact. More people, by number and by percentage of the population, use free-to-air digital radio in the UK than anywhere else. Over 8m cumulative device sales, without a penny of device subsidy or subscription. Planet Rock has almost half the audience of Absolute Radio.

So what we have is not broken, is not a failure and is not dysfunctional.

But – it could be better. We’re only using a fraction of the capabilities of the system, and the implementation was conceived without any reference models, and without any similar paradigms. Which is why it tended to follow the FM model that preceded it by 40 years (25 years in commercial radio).

I tend to work by setting a clear vision of what I want to achieve, and then working out how to get from here to there. If you start from here, and look only at the obstacles, you’d probably give up. (Maybe that’s what’s happening in other countries?). But if you think what you could do, I find it easier to find the swerves and jumps that get you round the problems. Or hope they go away before you get to them.

So here’s my manifesto for doing it properly. My manifesto, not that of my employer. And not representative of all or even part of the radio industry.

Coverage “Turn It Up”

We need higher field strengths for DAB. To really realise its strategic value, and its unique benefits, DAB has to be receivable on the move on a handheld device tucked in someone’s pocket as they go through cities – walking down streets, and walking round buildings. And that means much higher field strengths. Probably about +12dBuV / +14dBuV on what we have now. For normal people, lots lots more.

And we need to do that by using a smaller number of transmitters using much higher ERPs (emitted powers). The whole economic model of “broadcasting” is lost if you work on a network of hundreds of sites to cover the same area covered by 1 FM site now. That’s oversimplifying things, but the general principle is sound. We need to cut the number of DAB sites in use now, and crank up the power of those remaining dramatically.

Why wasn’t this done in the first place? Ah, well, thanks for asking that, because it leads into the next point…

Spectrum Planning “Make It Simpler”

OMFG the UK DAB spectrum plan is complicated. We (the radio industry) made such a rod for our own backs, and loaded ourselves down with so much cost with the current spectrum plan. The current spectrum plan is derived from the original FM plan,and was somewhat influenced by the decision to tie FM licence renewals with commitment to get services on DAB.

We tried to replicate the FM coverage model on DAB. Wherever there was a significant analogue licence that was eligible for renewal, it needed to have an equivalent DAB multiplex area. Problem is, there’s about 100 FM channels in the spectrum 87.5MHz to 108MHz. We tried to duplicate an FM plan which was carefully juggled to fit into 100 FM channels, and pretty much replicate it in 5 DAB channels. Um, can anyone see the problem here, because we didn’t spot it 10 years ago. (Yes, hello pedants – I’m aware that’s an oversimplification, but ride with me on this one).

That created the most fabulous spectrum plan, for which hat tip to the spectrum planners for almost managing to do it. Incredible.

The problem was, it relied heavily on cramming services close together, both in the same areas (adjacent channels) and in adjacent areas (co-channel channels). So the amount of interference from each multiplex had to be virtually negligible outside of its area, which in turn meant using lots of low power transmitters rather than a few bigguns.

My favourite example of this is the London III and Sussex Coast multiplexes, which are both on channel 11B. They are separated by less than 30kms. Can you imagine having two FM stations on the same frequency, with coverage areas only 30kms apart? No. Madness.

The best thing we can do is re-plan to put spectrum where it’s needed, and have bigger mux areas with wider geographic separation. It makes little sense to have Wiltshire split across two different frequencies. (I could tell you why, but you’d be in disbelief).

A re-worked spectrum plan would create less adjacent and co-channel interference, and would support fewer transmission sites at higher powers.

But, you say, how do you fit all those radio stations that used to be on 3 separate muxes onto 1 bigger mux. Well, funny you should ask, because…

DAB+ “Make It More Spectrum Efficient”

Flameproof suits on, mail filters armed, incoming abuse expected.

DAB+ isn’t about making radio sound nicer, because consumers don’t want it, and it doesn’t help anyone. The best use of DAB+ would be to allow a smaller base of infrastructure to support the same number of radio stations. That way, the cost of DAB(+) to the radio industry goes down, we can put much higher powered muxes on-air, and everyone gets a better service.

It’s a big hairy problem though. It keeps me awake at night (not kidding). I would not like even 0.01% of the 30% of UK households who have DAB radios to email me to tell me how they feel about making their DAB radio defunct. It’s not fair, and being fair is an important part of radio IMHO. I don’t have a simple plan on how we would do this, so lets file that under “needs more thinking”.

If we did get to DAB+, we would almost certainly find that we could get the radio stations on-air, and have some spectrum free, and seeing as you’re asking, I’ll tell you what we’d use it for…

Differentiation “Do something exciting”

DAB is insufficiently differentiated from analogue currently. Yes, there’s lots more stations, and its tune by name, and you get some (semi)-useful text. But it’s not the evolution it could have been. DAB has some immensely w00t technologies in it, but the broadcasters have to implement them, and educate listeners about them, BEFORE the radios get built. I take my hat off to the original spec writers, because it’s a joy to converge DAB with IP. Did you know there’s a whole “over the air” HTTP transport layer, that will move seamlessly between IP and DAB? Or a highly efficient way of distributing traffic messages. Even an IP Multi-cast tunnelling option. All there, all waiting to be used.

If we did some of this stuff, I’m sure DAB would get more exciting, and would get into more exciting devices. And, incidentally, become more valuable commercially. Which can only be a good thing. (BTW – have been told what I can talk about on the Touch Radio device, so just need to think and write about it).

Summary

So there’s my “doing it properly” 4-point plan.

  1. Better coverage through higher powers on fewer transmitters
  2. Simpler Spectrum plan with fewer muxes covering bigger areas
  3. More efficient spectrum use with DAB+
  4. Differentiation through data services

Only a few things stopping these changes

  • Infrastructure / transmission contracts which go on for a number of years still
  • Big one-off cost of changing around all the transmitters and masts
  • Complex transition from existing spectrum plan to a new one
  • Replacing ~8m DAB radios with DAB+ ones.
  • Staying alive through the recession.

But, never fear dear readers, because there is light. Digital Britain confirms what the educated know, which is that DAB is fundamentally a great technology, it’s just the current implementation that isn’t brilliant. Consumers just keep loving DAB, and it’s easy to get some data services and some new radio stations back on the air in the current infrastructure (and credit to my team for pulling some clever workarounds out on the data issue). There’s lots of clever people working in radio, who can make this happen.

I will be looking at how Australia get on. They’re starting fresh in May, and they’re going for the 4-point “doing it properly” plan on day 1. They’ll go rushing past us, and set the standard for DAB rollouts from here on. Who knows, maybe it will trigger the second Aussie invasion of radio? Grab the esky, and get the beers cold.

Photo: Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr