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United Kingdom Communications Digital Government Technology

FM Radio Faces UK Government Switch-Off As Digital Listening Passes 50 Percent Milestone (inews.co.uk) 99

The Amazon Echo and other smart speakers have helped push the audience for digital radio past that of FM and AM in the UK for the first time. According to Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR), digital listening has reached a new record share of 50.9%, up from 47.2% a year ago. This milestone will trigger a government review into whether the analog FM radio signal should be switched off altogether. iNews reports: The BBC said it would be "premature" to switch off the FM signal. It could cut off drivers with analogue car radios and disenfranchise older wireless listeners. Margot James, Digital minister, welcomed "an important milestone for radio." She confirmed that the Government will "work closely with all partners -- the BBC, commercial radio, (transmitter business) Arqiva, car manufacturers and listeners" before committing to a timetable for analogue switch-off.

James Purnell, BBC Director of Radio and Education, said: "We're fully committed to digital, and growing its audiences, but, along with other broadcasters, we've already said that it would be premature to switch off FM." Mr Purnell said that BBC podcast listening was up a third across all audiences since the same time last year, accounting now for 40,000 hours a week. But younger audiences have not inherited the habit of listening to "live" radio, even on digital.

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FM Radio Faces UK Government Switch-Off As Digital Listening Passes 50 Percent Milestone

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    FM radio is not facing shut off. It's being discussed, but it hasn't been decided.

    Please refrain from lying in the future.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo AT world3 DOT net> on Saturday May 19, 2018 @06:29AM (#56637948) Homepage Journal

      Indeed, it won't be turned off until all those valuable drive time listeners and OAPs get digital radios. For cars it's particularly difficult to retrofit, because the original controls on the dash and steering wheel work with the cheap kits and the expensive ones are expensive and tricky to fit.

      Plus digital reception on the move is shit. My car has it but it keeps dropping out, several times just on the way to work. The conversion kits make things worse, with low quality antenna splitters or internal stubs, and besides the standard FM ones on older cars are no good for DAB anyway.

      Plus I make industrial products that rely on FM radio so they damn we better give me 5 years notice :-)

      • Indeed, it won't be turned off until all those valuable drive time listeners and OAPs get digital radios.

        In your eagerness to be rude you have forgotten that in large parts of the country digital radio is not available [ukdigitalradio.com]. The trouble is that many decision makers live in London or large cities, but not everyone does!

        OK: that map is 2 years old, but things have not improved much.

      • by mjwx ( 966435 )

        Indeed, it won't be turned off until all those valuable drive time listeners and OAPs get digital radios. For cars it's particularly difficult to retrofit, because the original controls on the dash and steering wheel work with the cheap kits and the expensive ones are expensive and tricky to fit.

        You'd be surprised how easy they actually are to fit. You just need the right kit for your car. I retrofitted a new head unit to my 2004 Z4. the steering wheel controls went through the mic in. I bought a &pound:15 kit from the same place I bought the head unit from. All I had to do was plug it in between the quad connector (what BMW calls the bit that connects to the speakers/steering wheel to the head unit) and then plug that into the Alpine to BMW connector which plugged into the back of the head un

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I think if we lose celestial radio it would be a tragedy. This is a primary way people through the years has gained access to information on a local level. Streaming does very little except provide a service of content. But I am sure much of this is about freeing up the FM for other uses.

    • by Zocalo ( 252965 ) on Saturday May 19, 2018 @06:48AM (#56637982) Homepage
      I'd definitely about freeing up FM spectrum, but the decision is more to do with OTA FM radio vs. DAB than streaming, the idea being that at 50% it worth *considering* whether it's time to set a date for mandating that FM radio stations switch to DAB-only (many currently broadcast on both), thus freeing up the FM spectrum for other things. That will almost certainly result in another expensive spectrum auction to generate revenue for the UK government, who probably doesn't really care all that much what it's going to be used for - 5G, IoT, whatever - as long as someone is willing to pay a lot of money for it. Besides the fact that for many areas DAB reception is still far less reliable and offers poorer sound quality than FM does (if you can received it at all), FM also enables in-car audio systems to cut to local FM radio stations for traffic updates, which are often far more up to date and informative than SatNav provided data.

      As an example from a personal perspective, I can get my preferred local radio station for about 50% of my commute on DAB, and maybe a little as half of that is understandable if it's raining/snowing hard enough. Meanwhile, FM is clear as a bell the entire way regardless of weather conditions, and I get switched over to the traffic updates from a few other local stations that can be useful in avoiding bottlenecks. This is a common complaint from commuters right across the UK, partly stemming from the fact that the UK's DAB infrastructure is based on the older DAB standard rather than the more effective DAB+, so I'd say if you want to switch off the FM radio stations then you need to update the DAB infrastructure to DAB+ first, and only then see whether it's viable or not.
      • They should also switch to a modern codec and kill of all existing DAB sets, and also insist that all dab stations are stereo and better quality than FM.

        But none of these things are likely to happen. DAB will never become mainstream, we will all be streaming instead. Maybe they can free up the DAB bandwidth as well.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          DABII isn't compatible with DAB at the codec level and the spec for DAB was a fixed option decoder that cannot therefore decode DABII nor DABII reside alongside DAB. And the DABII spec was finalised BEFORE DAB CAME OUT.

          • by Zocalo ( 252965 )
            No, but you can multiplex DAB and DAB+ together (and DMB as well, if you wanted), and dual DAB/DAB+ capable sets have been available since 2007 in the UK, so there's no reason why you couldn't migrate the stations to DAB+ first, then allow time for the sets to catch up before deprecating DAB. This is actually OFCOM's intention [ofcom.org.uk] [PDF link], and although there are currently no timescales set on this some DAB+ broadcasts have been available in the UK for a year or two. As usual the early DAB adopters may get
        • by tepples ( 727027 )

          DAB will never become mainstream, we will all be streaming instead.

          How much is the annual licence fee (if any) for a DAB receiver? How much is the additional fee for a data plan on top of what one is expected to already pay for talk and text on a mobile phone?

          • by jrumney ( 197329 )
            The license fee is a one time per household fee that covers all broadcast media. If you own a TV, or use a PC, tablet, smartphone etc to watch broadcast TV stations online, you should be already paying for the license that covers listening to DAB. And if not, I think the "radio only" license was dropped decades ago.
            • by tepples ( 727027 )

              In other words, DAB's recurring fee is less than that of a cellular data plan, which makes DAB cheaper over time than streaming.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          Digital TV proved that people will gladly accept extremely low quality in exchange for 100 channels of bullshit.

          I don't understand it either.

        • Mandating that all stations be stereo is excessive. Stereo doesn't provide much value for a lot of news and talk programming (notably, anything with only one person talking); it just increases the number of bits used for no good reason. That type of programming also doesn't gain much from high frequency response out to 15 or 20 KHz; more than typical AM radio is good but a cutoff of 8 or 10 KHz can be used.

          Like many modern forms of broadcasting, DAB and DAB+ multiplex more than one content stream into one s

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mrbester ( 200927 )

        > I can get my preferred local radio station for about 50% of my commute on DAB, and maybe a little as half of that is understandable if it's raining/snowing hard enough. Meanwhile, FM is clear as a bell the entire way...

        This is what still pisses me off about digital TV. If it's too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too windy, too calm, third Tuesday after a conjunction of Saturn and Venus in the fourth house, or just felt like it, I get tearing and super loud ICK ACK ZZZXXK and I may as well turn it off

  • by YuppieScum ( 1096 ) on Saturday May 19, 2018 @06:20AM (#56637932) Journal
    Two reasons:

    1. FM coverage in the UK >99% - DAB coverage is nowhere near that level.
    2. Cars - even today, more than 50% of new cars do not have a DAB receiver as standard, but all have FM. Then there's all the millions of cars already on the road that don't have DAB.

    When UK TV was switched from analogue to digital, the government first made sure that simple, cheap STBs were available so that citizens could keep watching with their existing equipment. No such device exists to upgrade all the FM radios out there - in homes, cars and phones - to DAB.
    • by mccalli ( 323026 )
      Regarding point 2 - I've never understood why the UK doesn't just make it mandatory on new vehicles sold in the UK. They have emissions standards, they have safety standards...why not other strategic standards?
      • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Saturday May 19, 2018 @09:01AM (#56638238)

        Regarding point 2 - I've never understood why the UK doesn't just make it mandatory on new vehicles sold in the UK. They have emissions standards, they have safety standards...why not other strategic standards?

        What is so important about a radio? Most people are more concerned with the ability for a new car to bluetooth and spotify than listen to an endless stream of adverts and the same generic shitty music pop music on every station.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Do you have any data on that or are you basing it on your personal views?

          I still listen to the radio, for example (and no adverts or shitty music, since it's usually BBC Radio 4), And I don't seem to be the only one [rajar.co.uk].

          • Do you have any data on that or are you basing it on your personal views?

            I still listen to the radio, for example

            I still listen to radio too. Looking around I seem to be one of the few. No surprise though, looking around at what is on the market no one seems to care much about radios. Follow a typical car company and they may sell one or two models with a DAB+ radio. Nearly every radio though will have some kind of bluetooth integration, many offer Aux in, and those with Bluetooth (especially those tied to in dash entertainment units) usually directly integrate into Spotify too showing album art, etc.

        • EAS notifications (Score:5, Informative)

          by tepples ( 727027 ) <.tepples. .at. .gmail.com.> on Saturday May 19, 2018 @10:49AM (#56638514) Homepage Journal

          What is so important about a radio?

          I don't know about Britain, but here in the United States, all radio stations carry announcements from the Emergency Alert System, such as severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service.

          • In Britain they still do it via radio too. In many other countries in Europe it's via Class-0 SMS or Cell Broadcast which is better since it can localise to the disaster area.

            Plus these days there are far more people in the vicinity of a mobile phone than a radio or television.

            • I guess it differs in Europe because incoming SMS is free of charge, unlike the USA where the sender and receiver split the SMS toll if not on a premium plan with unmetered SMS. But announcement on radio is spoken and thus accessible to drivers with their eyes on the road.

        • by Megane ( 129182 )
          Some people listen to the radio for things other than brain-rotting pop music and (c)rap. News, sports, traffic, those are all things you can't cram into a flash drive and listen to later.
          • Some people listen to the radio for things other than brain-rotting pop music and (c)rap. News, sports, traffic, those are all things you can't cram into a flash drive and listen to later.

            Ironically a lot of that stuff doesn't get carried over FM. Also flash drive? WTF is a flash drive and how do you bluetooth stream it to your car radio via the Spotify app on you mobile phone :-P

            Sidenote: In Europe for the most part people don't give a crap about traffic reports since we've had automated traffic reporting through RDS to our in car navigation systems since long before everyone had a copy of Google maps in their pocket.

            • by Megane ( 129182 )

              Ironically a lot of that stuff doesn't get carried over FM.

              Two talk radio stations in my area, one here and one in a nearby city, have low-power FM simulcasts. These are only good for roughly within the local city limits, but usually give better reception when in range. The AM station is good for at least 100 miles.

        • by Teun ( 17872 )
          (something not working with my moderation)
          Radio is outside of the US quite nice, lots of different music, news, documentaries etc.
          No reason to go to the trouble of streaming.
          DAB+ (not DAB) gives a good quality sound plus its cellular nature makes it when travelling possible to have a clean transition between cells.

          About the lack of coverage, yes there still is but none the less over 50% of listeners already prefer DAB+.
          By the way, the last three of my cars had DAB+ as standard, the cheapest portable D
          • Oh I don't disagree that DAB+ is nice. I put a DAB+ radio in my own car. Still I often find myself switching to Spotify when I get sick of an endless stream of adverts, this is especially bad in the UK, Germany, and West Europe in general all the way to Spain.

            Though curiously I found I didn't have cell coverage along parts of the highways in France. That caught me out.

    • When UK TV was switched from analogue to digital, the government first made sure that simple, cheap STBs were available

      *froth* why not leave it to the market *froth froth* nanny-state *froth* death panels *froth*

      (cayenne8 & SuperKendall are on holiday).

      • by Teun ( 17872 )
        Nothing to froth about.
        At the end of the 2nd WW most European nations did not have the money to afford commercial broadcasters with any sort of quality, by consequence they set up their public broadcasters, each country according to their own culture.
        In some countries like Germany and the UK these stations are still extremely popular simply because they are good.
        Since many years they have commercial competitors assuring the programming is of the highest quality.
  • by Ubi_NL ( 313657 ) <joris@NOSpaM.ideeel.nl> on Saturday May 19, 2018 @06:40AM (#56637966) Journal

    Lousy signal for analog gives you a noisy reception. Lousy digital signal gives you stutter, which is way worse.

    • Signal suckage is a different problem. Where I live in Europe I switched to digital because it had better coverage and static while okay in emergency situations absolutely sucks for trying to listen to music.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If they had any common sense, they would wait until it was closer to a 90/10 split.

  • 50% penetration to turn off analog radio is inherently prejudicial (both have 50% penetration but one is promoted while the other demoted) but that is not what is actually happening (so far). I do find this regulation suspect ... why was this not a topic of study or discussion on an official level (perhaps annually) before? And when I ask the question to myself, the answer is basically it must have been analog radio lobbying that asked for such a threshold prior to discussion.

    In any case, this doesn't mean

    • by Zocalo ( 252965 )
      So, just like Brexit? /rimshot
      • So, just like Brexit? /rimshot

        You confuse an Either / Or referendum with a consumer market penetration level?

        • by Zocalo ( 252965 )
          Of course not. Not that I think that everything in the GP's post is 100% accurate in relation to the potential FM switch-off, but if you read it through replacing words to the effect of "turn off/replace FM radio" with "leave the EU" and you should see a few similarities:

          Roughly a 50:50 split between the two sides.
          One side taken as read, the other all but marginalised (the referendum was supposedly non-binding, remember, "will of the people" came after, once the Remain supporting Conservative leadershi
    • In any case, this doesn't mean analog radio will be depreciated

      Straight line or declining balance?

    • by Agripa ( 139780 )

      50% penetration to turn off analog radio is inherently prejudicial (both have 50% penetration but one is promoted while the other demoted) but that is not what is actually happening (so far).

      It is 50% penetration of not just DAB but Satellite, DTT, and online streaming.

      I do find this regulation suspect ... why was this not a topic of study or discussion on an official level (perhaps annually) before?

      From the look of the UK FM bandplan, more than half of the FM broadcast band is reserved for government (BBC) use. Why would they care if an essential emergency service was discontinued without an equivalent replacement?

  • Between this, net neutrality and the 1 trillion year copyright extensions, we will need to pay for everything, including the privilege of seeing adds and being locked into walled gardens. Nice future we are heading towards, if you are in the top 1%
    • Between this, net neutrality and the 1 trillion year copyright extensions, we will need to pay for everything, including the privilege of seeing adds and being locked into walled gardens. Nice future we are heading towards, if you are in the top 1%

      Exactly. This is more about converting all those OTA analogue FM listeners enjoying free bandwidth to a metered-bandwidth model and monetizing what was once free, and then selling off the radio band for even more cash for government to waste.

      I stopped watching (and owning) TV in the US when OTA TV went digital and I haven't looked back. I have classic movies on DVD, make my own music being a musician, listen occasionally to FM analogue music radio and AM talk radio on my trusty '70s Lafayette stereo receive

  • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Saturday May 19, 2018 @09:03AM (#56638240)

    In the UK they rolled out the god awful DAB standard and have only very recently introduced DAB+. Who is at 50% DAB or the technology that doesn't make your ears bleed?

    • As TFS suggests - the game-changer is likely neither DAB nor DAB+ but internet radio available on pretty much every smartphone, smart TV, computer, phone, creepy digital household spy/assistant etc. the only drawback of which is the need for an internet connection and the need for a "smart device" to receive it.

      The problem is, of course, areas with poor internet service (which I bet is strongly correlated with poor DAB reception), people for whom £25/month for broadband is a problem and, of course, c

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        As TFS suggests - the game-changer is likely neither DAB nor DAB+ but internet radio available on pretty much every smartphone, smart TV, computer, phone, creepy digital household spy/assistant etc. the only drawback of which is the need for an internet connection and the need for a "smart device" to receive it. The problem is, of course, areas with poor internet service (which I bet is strongly correlated with poor DAB reception), people for whom £25/month for broadband is a problem and, of course, car drivers who don't want their radio to cut out every time they drive through a 3G/DAB dark spot. Plus, its another incentive for drivers to be fucking around with their phones while driving.

        That's really what this boils down to, DAB+ is far more competitive with internet radio when it's in bigger cities and along main roads. More channels, better quality and cheaper vs internet streaming which is personalized but requires a subscription and has quotas. Truth is FM is far more superior for any kind of national/emergency broadcast system, it's got better reach and simpler, low-power receivers and despite a lot of noise you can catch the important bits even from a very weak signal despite the sta

        • That's really what this boils down to, DAB+ is far more competitive with internet radio when it's in bigger cities and along main roads. More channels, better quality and cheaper vs internet streaming which is personalized but requires a subscription and has quotas.

          IMHO, using the current Internet for broadcast content is idiotic, since you need to send a separate copy for every receiver. This is especially bad in case of live events, which are less often time-shifted, and mobile networks with all their constraints.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The government can't track, filter, block, intercept, rejigger, redirect or really in any meaningful way do anything with an FM signal. They can legislate to a degree what is allowed but very minimally compared to the control they have over the Internet.

    Any knucklehead can transmit on FM limited only by how much power they can pull. Anyone with a receiver can listen. Internet not so much these days as it's entirely government controlled.

    So the faster they get rid of something semi-free and push subjects

  • In America Talk radio has a pretty large political impact [google.com]. I worked as an apprentice electrician for a few years before going back to school and Rush Limbaugh was on pretty much everywhere, but that was mostly because it was on the classic Rock channel for an hour every day. I don't think anybody went out of their way to listen to it per se.

    Digital means more spectrum going to phones, which means faster cell phone data and better reception for that data. And that means folks don't have to just listen to
    • VHF spectrum (FM is in the middle of VHF) isn't really that great for high speed data. I think the idea of reclaiming it to make mobile phones faster is a misunderstanding along the way.

      What is really going is that some portion of that band will be reclaimed and used for private purposes like point-to-point wireless networking. It's important to realize that what once was a radio band accessible by the public is going to become private.

      If you use a big enough notch of the band you can have very fast network

      • by Agripa ( 139780 )

        VHF spectrum (FM is in the middle of VHF) isn't really that great for high speed data. I think the idea of reclaiming it to make mobile phones faster is a misunderstanding along the way.

        What is really going is that some portion of that band will be reclaimed and used for private purposes like point-to-point wireless networking. It's important to realize that what once was a radio band accessible by the public is going to become private.

        If you use a big enough notch of the band you can have very fast networking, but if you slice it up into lots of channels so that many mobile devices can work at the same time then it's going to be slow. Also transmitting with a tiny fraction of an antenna is not very effective, it's preferable to go to a higher frequency where your antenna is quarter wave or better.

        The entire broadcast FM band is not large enough to support competitive high speed data and the antenna length required is inconvenient. It works well enough with a car antenna or analog headphone antenna but portable devices without these or a whip antenna are going to perform very poorly.

        As it is now at least in the US, the band is a wasteland except for emergency broadcasts but without some reason to use it regularly, nobody will be prepared to listen to the later anyway.

    • This is the U.K. you would loose your license if you did a US style talk radio show in the UK pretty dam quick. All broadcast media must by law be impartial, no ifs and no buts. I really wish they would chuck RT for that matter.

  • Are DAB receivers inexpensive now?
    Do they require much more power in comparison to an FM receiver? I reckon that many radio listeners do so on batteries.
    Also, how nice is the experience when the signal quality is less than perfect? Again, radio is often listened to while on the move.
  • Ultimately most digital subscribers want personalized streams of their favorite programming, not local information. Those people can stream from their phones and there is almost no place for DAB.

    We see the same trend here in the US with HD Radio and services like Sirus. People who listen to these could have been as easily served with a pre downloaded podcast or stream on their phone. The people listening to FM and AM are the ones that care about news in their own community and local views on national topics

  • Norway has switched the main stations (apart from local ones that have 4 years left) and it is the most idiotic bureaucratic move I have ever experienced. So they might have saved a little money operating the FM transmitters, but they just junked millions and millions of perfectly working radios.
    Funny thing is, people didn't rush out and buy swathes of new DAB units to replace the old ones - the radio listening has taken a nosedive and the local FM stations are having a right goldage.

    • Thanks for your account about Norway's switch to digital-only radio. I wonder if there is any rumor of rolling back this decision? I love my old FM equipment.

  • Using proprietary, royalty-required formats for something so fundamental and universal is silly. The original DAB is terrible enough it should be immediately discontinued. And DAB+ is already starting to look outdated.

    I think it's quite possible to come up with an FM replacement that will both save bandwidth and substantially improve listeners' experience. But I think it'd be worth putting in research to arrive at codecs, modulation, and error correction schemes we're more confident we won't regret choosing

  • FM Radio Faces UK Government Switch-Off

    I look forwards to the UK gov't being switched off with trepidation.

  • There hasn't been enough discussion about the effect of eliminating analog broadcasting on disaster recovery. Quite simply, it would be catastrophic.

    Analog has a number of advantages. There is a huge installed base of compatible receivers. They require little power for operation, making long term operation on battery power feasible. The receivers are relatively simple, and many can be built and repaired by users. Equipment to TRANSMIT in analog is also simple and inexpensive and some hobbyists already own it, making it possible to set up a local broadcast in a situation where large scale broadcasting might be disrupted for an extended period. The standards are not encumbered by patents. Broadcasts can be received intelligibly over a wide area, even with terrain obstacles in the way.

    Digital is great under the right circumstances, and can provide superior quality and a wider range of programming. But under the wrong circumstances it is far less robust. Fewer receivers exist, so some people won't have access to one. They are basically unrepairable and not buildable at home. The transmitting equipment is complex, not readily available at a reasonable price, and not buildable at home. (The standards are protected by patents that make that even more difficult.) Reception often drops out because of terrain or weather.

    Depending on the internet has its own set of problems in that scenario. The internet depends on a lot of technological infrastructure; if that is disrupted it won't work. In a major catastrophe it's not going to work.

    Disasters on that scale still exist here and now. Consider how much worse things would have been in Puerto Rico if there had been no FM (and AM) radio broadcasts to disseminate information.

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