Progress towards a digital radio future continues

On 16 December 2013, in front of a crowded Radio Theatre at BBC Broadcasting House, Ed Vaizey made his speech on the future of digital radio.

Much of the journey toward a digital radio switchover is going to be driven by the car industry

Much of the journey toward a digital radio switchover is going to be driven by the car industry

Various press articles and discussions over the past weeks had implied no in-principle switchover announcement or date would be set. As expected, Vaizey did not announce either. However, he did outline a range of new measures to encourage and boost digital radio, including a new national multiplex (D2), expanded local coverage, a digital ‘tick’ accreditation process and plans to work with the DVLA to encourage drivers to upgrade their radios to digital.

“I absolutely believe that the future of radio in this country is digital.”

We agree and for many reasons. Not only can digital double the number of radio stations you can get on FM, it can transmit more stations than ever before. It is more robust to electrical interference, which can spoil analogue broadcasts and unlike radio via IP there is no need to log on, download, buffer or pay over-the-odds on data roaming.

Steve Holebrook, Managing Director of Terrestrial Broadcast

In continued support for digital radio, over the past 18 months Arqiva has built seven new local muxes in areas such as Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Northants and Hertfordshire, as well as boosting transmitters in South Wales and Yorkshire, bringing in 6.5million new local listeners. We launched the latest for Muxco in Surrey a week ago. In addition we also launched 14 national digital radio stations in Northern Ireland bringing national DAB to nearly 80% of households in Northern Ireland.

However, as many speakers alluded to on Monday, there is more work to do.

In the next 24 months Arqiva will be completing the launch of the remaining local DAB muxes, adding a further 2million local listeners. As part of the announcement on Monday the broadcasters, Government and Arqiva outlined a new expansion plan for local DAB, which will see the roll-out of 200 new radio sites (in addition to new local muxes), increasing the coverage of DAB from 72% to 90%.

As part of our new contract with the BBC we will also be expanding their coverage from 93% to 97%, building over 160 new transmitters to support an extra 2.5million national DAB listeners by Christmas 2015. The first site was delivered last week at Basingstoke.

What was very clear from the various announcements and speakers on Monday was that much of the journey toward a digital radio switchover is going to be driven by the car industry (pun intended!). Although 40% of new cars have digital radio installed as standard, there are still many cars with analogue. Ford, Halfords and Kwik-Fit all announced initiatives to support digital uptake; Halfords announced that by 2015 they will no longer sell analogue-only car radios. We will support this by adding 7,500km of road coverage as part of local expansion and upgrading service linking so listeners can travel around the country seamlessly auto-tuning to their favourite station.

A topic that wasn’t discussed on Monday but should be addressed is the cost at maintaining both FM and DAB infrastructure. If the industry wishes to retain the analogue transmission networks for an extended period, this will require significant additional investment at a level in excess of what is needed to fully roll-out DAB. The network equipment which supplies the analogue signal will be 20 to 30-years-old by the time we get to 2020 and to be reinvesting in such technology when the rest of communications around the world is going digital seems inappropriate. Providing clarity over whether we are heading for a switchover could actually save the industry significant amounts of money.

As an industry it is our duty to continue moving toward a digital radio future. The speeches made on Monday outlined this intent and direction; from retailers selling digital-only radios, to new Ford cars coming with digital radio as standard. As we have shown, there is significant DAB expansion taking place – both locally and nationally – and it is estimated that this will bring a total of 8million listeners into local coverage, as well as more choice for listeners with the new D2 licence.

As we found out first-hand with digital TV, a switchover is a journey that must be made with all parties working together. Ed Vaizey has made it clear that the outcome for the UK is going to be digital. At Arqiva, we will continue to build the supporting infrastructure so we can accelerate progress to a digital radio future.