The analogue radio switch off

The driver for switching off normal (analogue) broadcasts is the fact that the current air-waves are congested and if public broadcasting is transferred to a digital network the current wavelengths used by radio and television can be sold off for other purposes.

Ofcom is the communications regulator. They have been interested in switching off the analogue broadcasts for at least five years. In 2004 Ofcom senior partner, Kip Meek, said the following at the Radio Festival in Birmingham :"We’re aiming for 2010 to 2012 in digital switchover in TV and I don’t think it will be that long thereafter [for radio]". (13th July 2004)

In September 2005, the Government confirmed that digital switchover (of television) will take place between 2008 and 2012.

Despite that statement by an individual above the official Ofcom position until 2006  or 2007  was that there were no plans to switch off analogue (our current AM and FM) radio. South Shropshire District Council, of which I was a member, was in correspondence with Ofcom on this subject. The main concern in Shropshire was that in rural and hilly areas it is impossible to receive digital signals and this is proving to be a problem for television users now. As we approach the switch-off of analogue television viewers will have to buy a new television, buy a box to attach to each television and video-recorder they use, or (and this will be the only option in some rural areas) connect their television to a satellite dish.

In December 2008 there were rumours that the government was considering reneging on that agreement, and had plans to switch off analogue radio.

In June 2009 The government published the Carter report “Digital Britain”. It includes the phrase “At the heart of our vision is the delivery of a Digital Radio Upgrade programme by the end of 2015.” Digital radio, is of course currently available, but not being taken up as enthusiastically as some industry and government people would like. Their so-called upgrade actually means switching off current AM and FM broadcasts. The interim report suggested that switch off of analogue radio would not occur until two criteria were met.  In the final report they seem to have prejudged when these two criteria will be met.

Now, you may ask, ‘Why do I believe that switching off the current radio broadcasts is a bad idea?’

•If current radio broadcasting is switched off all current radios will be redundant. Whereas each house may have only one or two television sets, most houses have many more radios. Most cars have radios. The radio in the kitchen, the spare bedroom, to clock radio by the bed, the personal stereo and the Hi Fi in the living room will all be useless. Whether these are burned or go to landfill there are environmental hazards involved in some of the electronic components.
•Digital radios cost more to buy
•Digital radios use about four times as much power as current radios, this is will increase power consumption in the home, but is particularly damaging to the environment for battery powered radios.
•Digital signals are all or nothing, so car radios will go silent if the car moves into an area with a weak signal.
•Many rural areas will not be able to receive a signal – and attaching a satellite dish is hardly a solution for a small portable radio.
•The quality of digital radio in terms of frequency response and dynamic range is worse than the current FM signal. (Technically a digital signal can be made as good as current radio or CDs but to do so requires more bandwidth and broadcasters are not prepared to allocate the bandwidth to provide the quality.)

Here is an article by Libby Purves on the subject.

There is a petition on line at the Number 10 website.
http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/AM-FM-Radio/

Radio revolution will leave listeners in silence
Take-up of the costly and energy-guzzling DAB technology is so pathetic that we must fight for our beloved analog sets

Libby Purves

The word “digital” joins a long line of adjectives too exciting for their own good. Look back in the history of hype and you find its ancestors: “electropathic”, “atomic”, “computerised”, “turbo” or just “state-of-the art”. With Lord Carter of Barnes’s report on Digital Britain, overstimulation peaked.

Starting from Gordon Brown’s startling assertion that only this technology can “unlock our imagination”, it plunged with boyish glee into arias about “seamless connectivity”, converging platforms, twitter, wiki, blogs, telepresence and “e-healthcare”. Fine. We are used to phones that double as movie cameras, music libraries, tellies, games, calculators, diaries, maps and guidebooks. We are grateful for Lord Carter’s confirmation that broadband is essential. However, in the general brouhaha about top-slicing the licence fee and taxing granny’s landline, the most preposterous plan of all has not had the raspberry it richly deserves. If any other report proposed an arrogant, wasteful, environmentally damaging assault on daily life – a copper-bottomed vote-loser, a V-sign to the vulnerable – there would be an outcry. But veiled as it is in glittery stuff about computers, we almost didn’t notice.
The assault is on radio. Baldly, the report proposes a surprise acceleration of the plan (still not widely grasped) to turn off FM and AM transmission of all national stations. They must “migrate” to DAB – which requires new digital sets. Your existing wirelesses – the bedside one from which Humphrys or Wogan talks you into sentient life, the old Roberts on the bathroom windowsill, the wind-up Freeplay in the garage, the jogging one with a clip, the flash stereo for listening to Radio 3’s Haydn season, the pocket one that consoles you on the freezing railway platform, the one in your car…all could be useless after 2015. Which is an eye-blink away – less than half new Labour’s tenure, or a secondary school career. That ramshackle collection of radios, perfectly functional despite the odd bent aerial or melted chocolate on the £5 tranny in the schoolbag, could in less than six years be deaf to Radio 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Classic or Absolute. Finis: a century after Reith, a massive disenfranchisement of the listener.

Of course, the networks would still be on your computer, TV and a few cellphones. Lord Carter loves this, cheerfully saying that the “diverse and flexible nature of the medium places it at the forefront of device and platform convergence”. But because radio is “intimate and ambient” he concedes it must also be delivered through portable devices. And with a startling leap of logic he says this cannot be done without a “dedicated digital medium – DAB”.

That radio has a perfectly adequate medium already, from transmitters that even the report con-cedes have many years life left, seems not to matter. Our version of DAB – rejected, remember, by everyone else in Europe except Denmark and Norway – is the only option. He recommends that when coverage reaches 90 per cent of the population (hard luck on remote communities) and when digital listening reaches a mere 50 per cent, it should trigger a two-year notice of full analog switch-off. He proudly says that “nine million DAB sets already exist in homes and cars”.

Yeah, right. And hundreds of millions of non-digital radios exist alongside them. DAB sales have been 50 per cent lower than forecast: check the industry websites for details, but the most optimistic prediction I can find is that by 2011, 12-15 per cent of radio devices might be DAB. There are reasons for this, even where transmission works. Music buffs complain about sound quality. The sets are expensive (L
ord Carter reckons they will be brought under £20, but analog radios can be picked up for a fiver, and plenty of us have 1970s sets working perfectly). Moreover, the cost of replacing or converting car radios will be astronomical on a national scale and painful on a personal one.
And – here’s the elephant in the room – we are all supposed to be thinking green, but digital radios use more than four times the energy (8.5 watts) of analog (average 2 watts). The industry is working on this, but the most optimistic forecast is 3.5 watts. More importantly, unless you switch them off at the wall, they are computers on permanent standby – like leaving a light on full-time. Portables gobble batteries six times faster. I suppose wind-up technology could help, but we will all develop massive biceps from flinging ourselves on them every four minutes to see if Jonathan Dimbleby has got to the end of his question yet. The conflict between green pieties and the rush to digital has never been addressed properly.
But then, it hasn’t in the wider sphere either. I hear chattering-class podcasters dismissing the “steam valve mentality” with the blithe line that “distributing audio and video via the web is where we’re heading”. What such people never admit is that video-streaming and iPlayering and online entertainment is massively heavy on power – not just domestically, but at vast data centres. Googling and downloading are becoming as carbon-guilty as flying and driving. A data centre uses 20 times the power of a normal office block. In the United States, local politicians are banning them from city centres because they drain more power than can be generated.

Two years ago worldwide carbon emissions from data centres topped 170 million tonnes; by 2020 the figure will have quadrupled, outstripping airlines. Work is being done on reducing it – Google plans to float offshore centres to provide cheap cooling – but the unwelcome fact remains that whenever you or I view or listen through a computer we use fuel far faster than on our old kit. Kit that will be poking its sad old aerials through heaps of landfill by 2016, unless we choose to listen to “ultra-local community stations”: a proposal by Lord Carter that is obviously not just a figleaf for the possibility of flogging the bandwidth to phone companies. Perish the thought.
Well, think about it. And if you are from a commercial outfit promoting analog switch-off because it will create a level playing field for non-BBC stations, don’t sneer that I write this for fear of competition. Know, brothers, that everyone on dear old Radio 4 simply longs for it to be healthily challenged by speech competitors. We were furious when poncey Channel 4 bought and cruelly closed down the excellent Oneword. This is not about Luddism or competition: it is about saving the most portable, economical, mentally liberating and humbly useful of media from an ill-conceived ideological purge.

Petition at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/AM-FM-Radio/

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2 Responses to The analogue radio switch off

  1. Lisa Kerr says:

    On behalf of Digital Radio UK – the organisation charged with getting the UK ready for digital radio upgrade, I wanted to respond to some of the points made in your post.

    First off, you quite rightly draw attention to the issue of coverage, which is something the industry has been focused on for some time. The reality is that digital radio already has wide coverage – reaching 90 per cent of the population – and the industry is committed to extending this, as well as enhancing reception quality. Of key importance, we agree what the digital radio switchover should not happen until digital coverage matches that of FM. We are taking action to improve coverage, including putting new transmitters in place every week. Future expansion is being planned meaning that coverage will certainly improve ahead of the switchover – as it has to under the proposals in Digital Britain. Coverage in cars has also increased significantly in recent years and now extends to all major motorways and A roads, as well as many B roads. Further investment will ensure this continues to improve ahead of the digital radio upgrade. In the meantime, the radio industry is working closely with retailers to provide customers with information telling them to check coverage in their area, and is also advertising an SMS number which customers can use to check coverage for their postcode.

    Another point you raise is costs. The cost of a digital radio has plummeted over the past ten years and it’s is now possible to buy a simple set for around £25 (see http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/fun/gizmo/2747576/Five-DAB-radios-for-under-30.html for more details) and, as with the transition to digital televisions, we expect prices to fall even further as switchover draws nearer and demand for sets increases. For customers who don’t want to buy a new radio set, it will be possible to convert existing sets to digital instead. An adaptor device will come onto the market soon that will cost around £50 and in time conversion may cost less than a new radio set. The transition to digital television has been accompanied by a help scheme for elderly and disadvantaged people and, as part of the impact assessment that will be conducted into the digital radio upgrade, the Government has committed to assessing the need for a similar plan for digital radio. The radio industry has pledged to work closely with consumer groups and government to define such a scheme as the start of the switchover process approaches.

    We agree with you that ensuring radios are energy efficient is of key importance and the digital radio sets coming on to the market today are far more energy efficient than earlier models. Many of the radios made by British company Pure are recommended by the Energy Saving Trust and operate on than a quarter of the energy used by a low energy light bulb. A recent study found that, based on typical radio usage, an energy efficient digital radio costs just £1.20 a year to run and, if the set is turned off rather than left on stand-by when not in use, that drops to 50p a year. Battery life is also improving dramatically. Roberts recently assessed the energy consumption of comparable analogue and digital radios. They found that the analogue radio used 6 batteries and lasted 40 hours, whilst the digital radio used 4 batteries and lasted 99 hours.

    On sound quality, a recent survey showed that 75% of people interviewed said that it digital radio sound was already as good as, or better than, FM. For this reason, the greatest benefits from digital radio upgrade will be for the listening public itself, who will also enjoy more choice (such as jazz, rock, in-depth sports coverage, children’s radio, comedy, Christian radio, stations for ethnic minorities etc) as well as interactive and additional services such as being able to purchase (or even just know the title of) the piece of music you are listening to.

    Lisa Kerr, Digital Radio UK

  2. admin says:

    I am grateful to Lisa Kerr for taking the trouble to reply to some of our concerns so fully.

    I note that the industry, who are of course the people wanting to sell us this technology, acknowledge the importance of coverage, and that it does not match that of current radio broadcasts. I agree that it is likely that cost of new radios will reduce with time, though that may be small comfort to a household who has to buy ten or twelve new radios, or pay to have them all converted and neither does it address the issue of disposal of all the old radios. When Which reviewed digital radios they did indeed find one at £25, but £100 was a more typical price.

    The claim by some manufacturers to have reduced the energy requirements is welcome, but the Energy Saving Trust point out that even these new improved radios still use more than an analogue radio. It was the Energy Saving Trust who originally reported that digital radios use on average more than four times the energy of analogue radios. To compare the energy use of a radio with a light bulb is hardly relevant. We don’t listen to light bulbs, nor do we usually leave them on 24 hours a day, whereas digital radios consume electricity even on standby.

    On quality, the facts are in the science. The sampling rate of all current digital broadcasts does not allow the quality of signal that is present in current FM broadcasts. Clearly a listening test on a small radio with a limited size of speaker may not show the difference. The problem is that however much one improves on the quality of the radio receiver, or Hi Fi, you cannot get out of the set a better signal than is being broadcast.

    Charles West

    More on the energy issue can be read at:

    http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/FreeBuyersGuides/AudioVisual/digitalradios.aspx
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jun/03/ask-leo-dab-radios
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6266082.stm
    http://www.electronicsweekly.com/blogs/engineering-design-problems/2009/07/digital-radio-working-hard-on.html

    Charles West

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