The introduction of digital radio in Europe began in the 1990s. Since then it has developed slowly and unevenly in different countries. It is not among the priorities of the EU and is subject to the demands of the telecommunications sector and their preferences for the different bands of the radio-electronic spectrum.
Javier García*/Spain/March 2017
At the beginning of 2017, Norway began to shut down its broadcasts in the FM band, to be replaced by DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) technology. This, coupled with the fact that other European countries such as Switzerland, have announced the FM switch off in 2020, has made us wonder if we are observing the end of analog FM radio. To answer this question it is necessary to make some clarifications.
The case of Norway
This is a partial switch-off to be continued throughout 2017. It involves radios that broadcast at a national level. The switch off for local stations has been postponed until 2022, depending on prevailing conditions. We will thus have to wait until 2018 to see if the transition process has been successful given the initial opposition of 66% of the population and whether it will be applied to local and community radios, for which the transition is likely to involve a significant economic effort.
Among Norway’s incentives for this change are improvements for both listeners, given the increase in the number of transmission signals and the improvement of quality, and for the broadcasters themselves, who have estimated an annual saving of 23 million due to lower electricity consumption for the big national networks when they change their transmitters. The Norwegian terrain, with its numerous valleys and mountains, means that the large radio stations require a complex network of repeater station links to achieve adequate reception of FM radio. For such broadcasters, the substitution of FM with DAB technology implies achieving national coverage with fewer repeater links and the use of lower energy transmitters.
The slow advance of digital radio in Europe
The introduction of digital radio in Europe began in the 1990s and has since developed slowly and unevenly in different countries. DAB technology comes with the support of the European Union in order to replace FM radio. But like AM radio, which survived the switch to FM, digital radio has come to live with analog radio, given that each uses a different band.
During this process, new transmission standards such as DAB +, T-DMB and DRM used in France have emerged. Moreover, digital internet radio has become a competitor of frequency broadcasting, offering unlimited channels and personalized listening options. Thus the uncertainty about the future of digital radio has increased.
This slow process contrasts with the speed and determination with which the analog television switch off was carried out in Europe.
The European Union’s radio spectrum policies
The European Union (EU) was instrumental in accelerating the introduction of digital television in Europe by imposing 2012 as the year of the switch off of transmissions using analog technology. The objectives of the EU were not only to improve the quality and supply of television: the digitization of the UHF band allowed the 800 MHz band to be freed up, which was referred to as the digital dividend, leading to the implementation of a new generation of fourth generation mobile communications (4G). This operation also brought significant revenues to European countries that conducted auctions in order to award frequencies to mobile operators.
Recently the EU has agreed on a new digital dividend: in 2020 televisions will have to release the 700 MHz band, making it available for the implementation of the services of fifth generation mobile communications (5G). Given the great pressure exerted by telecommunications operators, digital television has been relegated to the band of 470-694 MHz, where it will take priority until 2030. Who knows if there will be new cuts in the future or even the end of digital television via frequency broadcasting.
In contrast, radio broadcasting presents fewer incentives for digitization; analogue radio occupies a much smaller band than television, so the savings in MHz are much lower. In addition, telecom operators are not interested in bands below 100 MHz as they are not suitable for mobile telephony and data services. This is the key aspect that has allowed FM analog radio to survive.
Paradoxically, DAB radio uses bands that are coveted by telecom operators, which has meant a reduction of the spectrum allocated to digital radio (Decision (EU) 2015/750) as the 1.5 Ghz band has been set aside for services of data downloads for the 4G signal. In addition, the countries that have most driven DAB radio are not part of the European Union (Norway and Switzerland) or are in the process of abandoning it (UK). Meanwhile, the rest dare not put a date on their FM exit.
The development of digital radio is not one of the priorities of the EU and is subject to the demands of the telecommunications sector and its preferences for the different bands of the radio spectrum. If there is no interest in the FM and AM broadcasting bands, these will survive and digitization will take place through the replacement of the analog signal by digital transmission. That process will involve the same band and will be achieved through technologies such as DRM or IBOC (HD Radio) instead of radio operators opting to transfer to another band, as is happening with DAB.
At the moment, it does not look like DAB in Europe will become the substitute for FM. It will instead serve as its complement, allowing the introduction of new operators and increased diversity. As such, it looks like we will have FM for a while yet. Just as vinyl survived the compact disc, FM radio may well survive digital television broadcast through frequencies.
* OBSERVACOM collaborator Twitter @radioelectriko