2015: a silence falls across Digital Britain
At least someone’s rubbing their hands with excitement over the Digital Britain report: within minutes of the final version being published, our email alerts pinged, boinged and made other comedy noises to signal the arrival of a press release from Pure Digital.
Hardly surprising, that, given the fact that the report actually namechecked the company’s Highway DAB-to-FM in-car converter as one of the solutions to the big problem of getting us all listening to digital radio on the road come 2015.
And 2015, in case you haven’t heard by now, is the date by which the Government reckons existing FM stations will all move to DAB, freeing up space for AM broadcasters in turn to upgrade, and making it possible for a whole new layer of ‘ultra-local’ services to spring up.
The Digital Radio 'Upgrade'
By the end of 2013, the report reckons, the criteria for change will be met: 50% of listening will by then be to digital radio, national DAB coverage will be comparable to FM coverage, and DAB local radio will reach 90% of the population and all major roads. At that point the wheels will be set in motion, so to speak, and we will be on the path toward the Digital Radio Upgrade, due two years later.
All of which may have come as a bit of a surprise to the head of BBC Radio, Tim Davie, who told a conference two months ago that "continuing current [DAB radio] purchase trends would not lead to radio switchover in our lifetime".
Now I’m no ‘back to analogue’ luddite, and I'm not harking back to the kind of golden age of radio illustrated above. Neither do I have anything but admiration for what Pure Digital done to popularise digital radio with an ever-expanding range of receivers and spread of prices. And Pure’s parent company, Imagination Technologies, has done fine work on making the enabling technology for digital radio receivers, and of course will do rather nicely out of the impending switchover.
But for the rest of us, the future may be Digital, but it probably won’t be an Upgrade – at least on the current showing of DAB in the UK.
Digital = more choice
Yes, digital radio gives us more choice, and for example makes Radio 5 Live listenable rather than being lost in the crackle of AM interference, whether at home or on the move. At least it does when you can actually hear it, and you’re not in one of the many signal dead-spots, or putting up with the squelching, ‘bubbling mud’ effects of marginal DAB reception.
OK, so FM’s not without its own reception foibles, but I’d suggest that the effects of a weak analogue signal – a bit of hiss, maybe – are a lot easier on the ears than all those digital burps and squeaks to which DAB is prone.
No, my main problem – at least from an audio perspective – is that DAB sounds pretty nasty, at least by comparison with a decent FM signal. That’s no small part due to the low bitrates being used for many stations – well short of the theoretical quality available via the format, and with even the best bitrates currently on offer bettered by at least some stations streaming on the internet.
Even the BBC is streaming at better quality than it’s broadcasting on DAB. Its UK iPlayer radio streams of its national stations are now 128kbps AAC, giving audio quality technically on a par with MP3 at anything up to twice the data-rate, while Radio 3 is running 192kbps AAC.
Quantity, not quality
But it’s on sound quality that the Digital Britain report has got things seriously wrong, with its talk of set-top DAB/FM converters and many more stations. Frankly, having read the pages on digital radio several times now, I haven’t seen a mention of audio quality anywhere.
All of which means that radio services once praised throughout the world for their audio quality have every chance of being lost in a miasma of mediocrity – real ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’ stuff.
True, there is the prospect of DAB+, offering better audio quality through more efficient encoding. It uses AAC rather than the current MP3 encoding, and promises much in terms of better sound for a given bitrate. And yet the Digital Britain report, while suggesting that it’s desirable for future digital radios to be compatible with DAB+ – as most new models already are – is pinning its Digital Radio Upgrade strategy firmly on current DAB standards.
Quantity, you see, not quality. A quick fix, not a long-term solution – and what’s more a quick fix for a problem that doesn’t actually exist.
And it’s not just those of us who have made a serious investment in getting optimal audio quality from FM radio – decent tuner, good rooftop aerial and so on – who are going to be disenfranchised by the Digital Upgrade: I’m willing to bet there are hundreds of millions of radios in use throughout the country, all of which will be fit only for the tip come the day of the mighty Upgrade.
Radio on the TV?
OK, so the digital radio proponents will tell you that by 2012 everyone will have the means to listen to radio via their digital TV equipment, which they have to have because that’s when analogue TV goes phutt. Oh, and they’ll be streaming radio via the Internet, helped by a growing broadband provision paid for by the Next Generation Fund supplement being imposed on all our landline bills.
Next Generation Fund supplement? It’s a euphemism. Bit like Digital Radio Upgrade, really…
All well and good: radio on digital TV, radio on the interweb – even if the universal 2Mb/s provision to which the Government is committing itself by 2012 is pretty pathetic when you see what speeds are already being achieved not just in other countries, but by services in some parts of the UK.
Thing is, the majority of analogue radios likely to be consigned to the scrapheap in 2015 are used in places where neither of those technologies are going to be of much help: in bathrooms, up builders’ ladders, on the beach, in the garden – oh, and in the nation’s tens of millions of cars, vans and trucks.
Radio. It’s portable.
Most people have radios scattered all over the house, both standalone and built into everything from alarm-clocks to mini-systems, and all those are going to be useless, too. And that’s before we even get on to the nation’s transport fleet, which relies on those annoying RDS-driven interruptions to tell us whether the road ahead is blocked. Or at least was blocked an hour ago.
Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report acknowledges that the personal nature of radio means we want to be able to listen to it anywhere we are. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like making radio portable requires ‘a dedicated digital medium – DAB’.
Portable since the pirates
No, soon to resign Government advisor, NO! We’ve been listening to a perfectly good portable radio medium since the days we hid under the bedcovers with Radio Caroline in a hearing-aid pink plastic earpiece, thank you very much.
And as I said, most of us have perfectly viable radio receivers all over our houses – I have relatives who still use old Roberts, Hacker and Bush sets on which they’ve been listening to ‘the wireless’ for half a century or more. And they’re as likely to be streaming Wake Up to Wogan over a home network as I am to be taking a laptop with me to keep up with the cricket, tennis or F1 while out on a walk. Or indeed a drive.
So we’re going to have DAB radios down to £20 by 2013? All very laudable, except I can go into my local shopping centre and pick up an AM/FM portable for about a third of that price. Right now.
And one more point: let’s get all warm, fuzzy and tree-hugging for a moment. Digital radio uses a lot more power than analogue, and while there’s time for work to be done on making digital radio chips more energy-efficient, it’ll be a long time before a digital portable radio will go for as long on a set of batteries as the old analogue portable we have in the garden shed.
I’m not exactly sure I can ever remember changing the batteries in that…
Where will all the analogue radios go?
Oh, and consider the environmental implications of what must be hundreds of millions of analogue radios being consigned to the scrapheap or recycling centres. That’s a lot of electronic landfill, most of it made in the days before RoHS regulations took the more harmful stuff out of the manufacturing process, or a lot of recycling. I wonder whether anyone’s thought of that…
Let’s not forget, too, that streaming radio over your digital set-top box or your home wi-fi to a computer or streaming client is also using bags more energy, and all this just to get a squelchy reception of a station that doesn’t sound as good as it used to a decade ago.
Router, data centre to send it the programmes, computer to listen to them? TV on just to listen to the radio? Watch that electricity meter spin.
That’s progress for you – and so, in closing, and with the predictions of warmer summers on the way, I’ll leave you with this thought:
If you’re planning to take your radio to the beach after the day of the mighty Upgrade, make sure you have a good long extension lead.
Welcome to Digital Britain.