Norway or the Highway?

It’s very rare that events in Norway hit the headlines in the UK, but that was the case recently as the country became the first to instigate a switch-off of its FM radio signal and convert completely to digital.

Norway was alongside the UK as the earliest adopters of DAB digital radio, having started its roll-out in 1995. While DAB transmissions are now available to 99.5 per cent of the country’s population, with 70 per cent reported to listen regularly, the decision to turn FM off completely has still been controversial.

But there is no denying that digital is a future-proof platform in growth on all fronts. In the UK almost half of all radio listening is now on digital platforms, with DAB accounting for 70% of that, and the ways in which you can receive a digital signal are growing all the time.

This is all a considerable advance from the standing start when the first services were launched back in the 1990s. The BBC began test transmissions from Crystal Palace in London in the early 1990s. Permanent transmissions across London began in September 1995 with a national roll-out beginning from 1998.

Our infrastructure and technical knowledge has been integral to the growth of digital radio in the UK. Since the 1990s we’ve been investing significantly in DAB infrastructure to support the ambitions of the BBC and commercial radio. We installed the BBC’s first digital transmitters and developed and rolled out the UK’s first national commercial DAB multiplex, Digital One (D1).

Today we continue to be involved in improving the digital radio experience in the UK on a daily basis.

Today

Fast forward to early 2017, and digital radio is now available to 97% of the UK population, with coverage for national and local stations increasing all the time.

In just the last year we have switched on hundreds of new transmitters for the national and local networks. 2016 also saw the launch of the second national commercial multiplex and its 19 radio stations, with Arqiva being part-owner and operator (with Wireless Group and Bauer Media) of the Sound Digital multiplex.

The local DAB network - bringing listeners their local commercial and BBC stations - is now available to 91% of the UK population. National commercial digital stations are also currently available to 91% of the UK population.

The Future

Digital radio is here to stay, but there is no set timeline for a Norway-style FM switch off in the UK.

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) continues to support a listener-led transition to digital and has stated (since the DCMS Digital Radio Switchover preliminary Analysis in 2013) it will review the next steps for digital radio when the coverage and listening criteria are met. The criteria are:

  • National digital radio coverage to match FM coverage
  • Local digital radio to reach 90% of the population
  • 50% of radio listening to be on digital radio platforms

Digital radio’s share of all UK radio listening has grown to over 45% (RAJAR Q4 2016) and is predicted it could reach 50% by the end of 2017. 57% of the UK population has access to a DAB digital radio and 86% of all new cars have digital radio as standard. There are now over 300 stations on DAB and it is becoming harder and harder to find an analogue radio on the shelves of shops.

As coverage and choice grow, digital radio is becoming the new normal for radio listening in the UK. We will continue to be at its heart, providing the infrastructure for stations to join the digital network and connect with new and existing listeners across the nation.

NB - Northern Italian region South Tyrol have also confirmed they will start to switch off FM and migrate listeners to DAB+ during 2017. South Tyrol is on the border with Switzerland and Austria and is home to around half a million people. It has a number of German-language stations among the 21 DAB/DAB+ stations available (compared to four on FM). They switched their nine DAB stations to DAB+ on 31 January and will switch off an initial six FM transmitters in 2017.

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