«Since then, the process has experienced and is experiencing a slow and uncertain development that can be linked to a variety of reasons. These include political and economic issues, along with technical drawbacks such as a lack of suitable receivers, the cost of commercialization, or the lack of channels and products.”
Fátima Ramos del Cano*/ August 2015
When we speak about digital radio we’re talking about the process through which the analogue signal is converted into digital. This is a transformation that the European Commission describes as essential in achieving the technological convergence of this media form, while at the same time recognizing that its complexity derives from the social and economic implications that go beyond a simple technical transition.
The digitization of radio media implies a number of advantages, among which are the ways that sound information can be accompanied by other services and forms of access and interactivity (such as the broadcasting of images or multichannel sound), a larger number of stations in the same spectrum, better sound quality or a greater choice than at present. Given these conditions, the challenge involves passing through a period of transition similar to that undertaken during the conversion to digital television (DTV), with a timetable of disconnections accompanied by a robust information campaign aimed at the general public, as people will also have to acquire new types of equipment able to receive a digital signal.
Eureka 147: the origin of digital radio standards in Europe
The process of radio digitization includes a range of technological standards (DAB, DAR, DBS, ISDB or IBOC), although four significant main models can be highlighted: Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) in Europe; IBOC (In -Band on-Channel) in the United States; ISDB (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting) in Japan; and DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) at global level.
In terms of Europe, DAB began to be introduced in 1986 as part of the Eureka 147 project promoted by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Nine years later, the European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI) adopted this standard as the continent’s only system.
Since then, the process has experienced and is experiencing a slow and uncertain development that can be linked to a variety of reasons. These include political and economic issues, along with technical drawbacks such as a lack of suitable receivers, the cost of commercialization, or the lack of channels and products. Other studies also point to the strong competition from online radio as one of the main causes of the current impasse. The «Public Radio and new media platforms» report published by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) identified listening to Internet radio as the second greatest form of access to this form of media among the European public in general. Moreover, commentators such as Mark Ramsey, Richard Rudin and Juan Carlos Valencia Rincón (2013), even go as far as to question the existence of a demand or social need for its implementation.
The uneven transition to digital radio in Europe
Despite its limited presence, digital radio is a reality in the European radio market.
According to recent data from the World DMB Forum, there are 15 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland) that now provide regular services; nine others that are implementing tests and/or are in the process of regulating digital radio (Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Monaco, the Vatican City and Romania); and eight countries that have simply shown some interest in its implementation (Slovakia, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine).
Furthermore, there are seven countries leading the process of European development of DAB: Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy.
On the 16 April 2015, Norway became the first country in the world to announce the end of analogue broadcasts, given that its DAB transmission now reaches 99.5% of the population, with 58% of Norwegian homes containing receivers. The digital transition will begin on 11 January 2017 and end on 13 December of the same year.
However, it was the United Kingdom that was the first country to formally set a date for turning off the FM signal. In the 2010 “Digital Economy Act”, 2015 was established as the deadline, although the date was then put back. In 2013 the British government made its implementation conditional on a series of criteria, including reaching 50% of the digital audience share, and a weight in DAB coverage comparable to the current analogue system. In any case, some of the main points of its transition strategy can be found in the constant analysis undertaken of the digital audiences through the Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) company, or the attribution of the management and marketing of all frequencies to just one enterprise: Digital One.
Following behind Norway, Sweden and Switzerland were the next countries to officially declare their intention to adopt the DAB standard as the official protocol for all radio broadcasts. All Swiss stations now broadcast via DAB+ and coverage reaches up to 99% of the population, with the final switchover to digital planned between 2020 and 2024. For its part, and despite indicating 2022 as a key date in its roadmap towards the digital spectrum, the Swedish Ministry of Culture stated in June 2015 that it did not intend to proceed with the proposed timetable.
In Italy, digital coverage reaches 68% of the population, being also one of the countries in which a major impact has been made towards the development of digital radio broadcasts by advertising. For its part, the launch of digital receivers in the Netherlands is considered to be one of the most successful such processes in Europe, thanks to the high level of sales in a country that has just completed the second phase of deployment of its transition plan to DAB+. Denmark, which has one of the highest numbers of DAB users per capita in the world (40% of the population already has access to this technology) has set 2019 as the planned date for its switchover, although this is subject to various conditions, while Germany has established 2025 as the deadline.
«Digital radio has reached a turning point in Europe» stated Patrick Hannon, president of WorldDMB, at the end of the WorldDMB European Automotive Event last May in Brussels. However, and as pointed out by the journalist and consultant for Radio and Communications, Gorka Zumeta, its implementation would become quicker if all States were to take a simultaneous decision, along with a more determined stance on the part of the European Commission, which has just ignored the radio media in its 16 new measures to achieve a Single Digital Market.
* Professor at the Department of Communication Sciences at the Universitat Jaume I (UJI).