Why is DAB+ the right choice for radio in Germany?
Why is DAB+ the right choice for radio in Germany?
Across Europe, radio plays a key role in citizens’ lives providing a vital source of news, information and entertainment. 84% of Europeans listen to radio every week – on average listening for more than two and a half hours a day. However, to remain relevant, radio needs to innovate.
The difficulty is that FM spectrum is full. There is no room for new services and limited scope for innovation. This is a recipe for long term decline.
DAB+ digital radio offers solutions to this situation – bringing benefits to listeners, broadcasters and society.
For listeners, DAB+ offers greater choice, clearer sound and a range of new data services.
For broadcasters, DAB+ offers opportunities to launch new services (for example, niche programmes based on existing brands) and revitalise the medium (for example, by attracting national TV advertisers onto radio).
For society, DAB+ offers more efficient use of spectrum, greener distribution and the potential for greatly enhanced traffic information services.
A digital radio wave is moving across Europe. The first four countries – the UK, Norway, Switzerland and Denmark – have had digital radio for several years. They were followed by Germany (DAB+ launched in 2011), Netherlands (2013) and Italy (2014). These seven countries all have national (or near national) coverage. A third wave of countries is now on the move: France has DAB+ services in Paris, Nice and Marseille (with services in Lille, Lyon and Strasbourg due on air in 2017); Belgium will launch national DAB+ services next year; and in Poland, Polskie Radio has services covering 55% of the population. Trials are also under way in Austria, Slovakia and Turkey; Slovenia is likely to be next.
DAB+ receivers are becoming main-stream. Worldwide, over 40 million receivers have been sold – in some countries DAB+ radios are now available for less than €20. In Bavaria, following the introduction of programmes such as BR Heimat, nearly 40% of all new radios sold have DAB+ capability.
The automotive sector has seen even more dramatic progress. In the UK, 82% of new cars now come with DAB as standard (up from 4% in 2011). Similarly in Norway and Switzerland, the majority of new cars have DAB. In the UK, 100% of new Audi cars have DAB as standard, 100% of BMWs and 95% of VWs. The technology is ready for mass adoption.
Perhaps most significantly, the first countries have set dates for Digital Switchover – Norway in 2017 and Switzerland in 2020-24. Drivers from other countries may find their FM radios no longer work when they drive through either of these markets.
For decades, UKW has been an international radio standard. Manufacturers have produced receivers based on a single standard for all European countries. Listeners have been able to use their (UKW) radio receivers wherever they are. This should be our aim for the digital age – with DAB+ as the core future platform radio in Europe. This requires a common European strategy with Germany actively involved. DAB+ is a common European standard across international borders. It should be supported by all stakeholders – in the interest of industry and listeners.
Is the Internet a viable alternative to DAB+?
Some have argued that the Internet is a viable alternative to DAB. Whilst IP is an important part of the digital radio landscape, it has significant limitations – especially for drivers on the move.
There are three reasons why IP should be positioned as a complementary platform for radio – rather than the core future platform. First, it is not free-to-air; listening via 3G or 4G on smartphones uses up consumers’ data packages (and their batteries). Second, IP coverage is not universal; it may be good on the Autobahn, but not on smaller roads in rural areas. Third, in times of emergency, mobile networks are unable to handle the simultaneous demands of multiple listeners.
In contrast, DAB+ retains the key benefits of broadcast radio – free-to-air, reliable and universal information regardless of the number of listeners.
What are the key factors for success?
Political vision and commitment from stakeholders
A successful transition to digital radio requires the joint efforts of all players in the radio ecosystem: policy makers, regulators, public and private broadcasters, network providers, receiver manufacturers, retailers and car makers.
The start point is a political vision that the future of radio is digital – with clear strategies and commitment from governments. Without political commitment, stakeholders lack certainty and will be reluctant to make the investment required to develop a new platform.
Next, it is essential to have the support of both public and private broadcasters. Their role is to launch new services and promote the benefits of DAB+ to consumers, retailers and the car industry. In Germany, the potential launch of a second national multiplex is an important way of strengthening the DAB+ content proposition. For promotion to be effective, it must communicate the core benefits of digital radio for a sustained period of time.
The primary goal of regulation should be to improve diversity in programmes and strengthen the competiveness of radio broadcasting.
Regulators should help create the conditions which will encourage private broadcasters, who may be concerned about the costs of broadcasting on two platforms for a number of years. Broadcasters may also be worried about new competition.
Regulators can consider a number of measures. One approach, used in the Netherlands and UK, is to renew FM licences only if services are also broadcast on DAB+. Another approach (in the UK), is to relax rules which limit the profitability of private broadcasters (rules which add costs or limit revenues).
In the UK, these measures have been very effective. As DAB listening grows, private broadcasters find themselves competing for listeners on a level playing field with the BBC. Private broadcasters are attracting new advertisers to the medium – in particular, national advertisers who previously used TV but not radio.
Some Länder have an issue with the geographic coverage of local multiplexes. Each area needs to be assessed individually, and there may be trade-offs between coverage and the number of services on a multiplex. (The more services on a multiplex, the lower the distribution costs for each broadcaster.) The regulator can help by balancing coverage needs and transmission costs of individual broadcasters.
To improve the economics for private broadcasters, it may be possible to provide public funding to help with the build out of DAB+ infrastructure – for example, in areas where private broadcasters find it difficult to justify investment purely on commercial grounds, but significant public value would be delivered by ensuring DAB+ coverage.
Another approach being trialled in Switzerland and the UK is to develop smaller multiplexes using a software-defined, low power DAB multiplex system.
Overall, I would suggest that regulators take a balanced view. With the right strategies, they can help provide listeners with better quality radio and secure the long term future of the medium. There are short term costs, but these are not so great. A fear of increased competition should not be a reason for failing to pursue a digital future.
An important next step for achieving the success of DAB+ is to ensure all new cars have DAB+ as standard. There is no technical barrier to achieving this goal. The key requirement is to persuade car manufacturers that DAB+ is here to stay. Four factors can help deliver this objective: strong political commitment, good DAB+ coverage (especially of roads), a content proposition stronger than on UKW; and sustained marketing by broadcasters.
Broadcasters need to educate listeners about the availability and benefits of DAB+ in the car. In the UK and Netherlands, broadcasters and car manufacturers often work together on joint promotions – for example, a radio station may give away a car with a DAB+ radio.
It is also important that politicians, broadcasters and car makers understand the role which DAB can play within the connected car – in particular, emphasizing the reliability of DAB+ in times of emergency.
A key theme from all countries is the absolute need for collaboration between stakeholders – both within national markets and increasingly across international borders.
Some countries have established marketing companies to promote DAB+. There are plenty of examples of best practice which they are willing to share. It would be helpful if Germany could form a similar body – with stakeholders from the whole radio ecosystem.
International collaboration is also important – partly because radio is fighting in a global world, where major competitors are brands such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Perhaps more important, the companies which broadcasters need to work with are also international in focus. Car makers, receiver manufacturers and mobile phone companies all have a global footprint. European radio has an opportunity to work with these companies, but it must present a united front.
I have tried to explain the reasons why DAB+ offers the best way forward for radio in Germany. The German authorities have looked at a range of alternative platforms, such as LTE and DVB-T2. Their conclusion was that these do not offer a viable alternative. I have also tried to explain how the successful development of DAB+ can be achieved – using experience from other markets.
It is important that stakeholders discuss the future of radio. But these discussions should not be used as an excuse to delay progress. Now is the time for decisions. Now is the time for action.