Monday, 16 December 2013

Ofcom to pursue DAB-lite for smaller stations....

I've been accused of being part of an "anti-DAB" campaign. Lets be clear, I think DAB was a brilliant development, in the 1980's it was an ingenious technically advanced solution. The trouble is that it was a solution to the wrong problem. It was devised largely with big European state broadcasters and national or regional commercial services in mind.

Before the days of the world wide web the specifications did not even consider the need for interactivity and access by a range of originators, large and small.

So I'm pleased to see that the Arts and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey today told the Go digital conference that the government will be providing funds over the next two years for Ofcom to build on the work of its Brighton pilot to develop small-scale DAB solutions, to allow smaller radio stations to go digital.

Vaizey told the conference: "We all know how much people love their small local commercial and community radio stations. That is why we have always said that we will reserve a part of the FM spectrum for as long as it is needed for those stations that are too small to make the switch to digital. This remains the case.

"We will also be consulting shortly on how we can improve the viability of the community radio sector by removing some of the complex and restrictive financing regulations currently in place.

"But wouldn’t it also be great if people could also get this local content on digital? I have for some time wanted to see progress on new solutions for small stations to have a route to DAB which meets their needs."

If we can find ways to open-up DAB so that it mirrors our expectations of every other digital medium - for accessibility, flexibility, interactivity and choice - then I'm all for it.

The DAB agony continues

Today's "Go Digital Day" does not seem to have addressed any of the real issues which surround British radio broadcasting moving into the digital age.

Not only has Ed Vaizey satisfied nobody by again failing to address the "digital switchover date" question but the government continues to conflate "digital radio" with the original DAB specification.

The DAB system we are using was defined in the 1980s - before the Internet!  There are many better digital radio solutions now available but the big groups, and many listeners, have invested so heavily in DAB that they are not keen to change technology this late in the day (not even to DAB+).

Earlier in this blog I've detailed the other issues which are not being addressed, here are a few in no particular order:
  • It is not good enough to talk about all new radios sold being DAB without explaining how ALL the stations currently available on AM, FM and the web could be affordably carried on DAB.
  • Why push ahead with a technology which, as presently licensed - even with national D2, can carry fewer stations than the previous analogue system?
  • What other digital media technology offers a restricted range of content compared with the analogue system it replaced?  Small independents or big studios can equally now make their output available digitally on CD, DVD and the internet. Digital technology has enabled a huge blossoming of new media producers. In UK radio only the big operators will control access to DAB.
  • What progress does the government want to see on "DAB-lite" for smaller local and community services? Or using DRM or HD Radio on medium wave or VHF frequencies?
  • If digital is the way forward (and I very much agree it is) how can it be acceptable to say that new smaller operators should remain satisfied with traditional FM? It's like telling independent record labels or film makers that they would have to continue with vinyl discs or VHS cassettes!
  • Unlike the situation with terrestrial television, where it was necessary to clear the UHF bands of analogue signals in order to carry more and better digital services, there is no technical imperative to have a fixed switch-over date for DAB radio. DAB uses different frequencies so the FM signals do not have to stop. The pressure for a date is driven only by economic considerations.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Digital radio not for small stations says Vaizey

Ahead of his much-heralded announcement on the digital radio switchover next week, the Minister for Culture Communication and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey has already told us that he will not be pushed into a switchover date until DAB has "adequate coverage".

But the smaller stations have been pointing out that, even with 100% coverage, many of them will not have a practical route onto DAB as it is presently constituted.

Vaizey stated: “We have never said we will require small stations to go digital, and FM can work in tandem with DAB”. This sounds reasonable but, as I've said here before, misses the point. All other digital audiovisual and information technologies have had the effect of adding choice, allowing additional access and creativity, and have been accessible to all providers big or small.

Saying that small stations can stay on FM is an admission that DAB (as designed in the 1980s) is not up to the job. It is currently the only digital media technology to offer FEWER choices to consumers than the analogue system it wants to replace.

It is as if only the big multi-national record companies had been able to release music on CD. This would be okay, according to Vaizey, because independents and small studios could still issue their songs on vinyl.

Or if only the big Hollywood studios could release movies on DVD.  This would be okay, under the Vaizey principle, because independent productions, art house movies and student productions could still be distributed on VHS cassettes!

I agree digital radio is the way forward, but if its so great it should be accessible to all producers and listeners - not just the established big boys.