The long, slow birth of DAB radio

DAB radio

A push is underway to get listeners to switch from analogue to DAB digital radio, but the technology is almost 30 years old. Why did it take so long to reach the airwaves?

It has been heralded as the medium of future, the means by which we will listen to the Terry Wogans and Chris Moyleses of tomorrow.

Communications minister Ed Vaizey has launched an action plan to get listeners to switch from AM and FM to Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) radio, promising that the public will adopt "multi-channel national radio in exactly the same way that television viewers have seen such benefits".

But although the format is not projected to win over a majority of Britons for several years to come, its genesis stretches back further than you may imagine.

DAB MILESTONES

  • 1981: DAB development begins
  • 1985: first DAB demonstration in Geneva
  • 1987: Eureka consortium begins developing DAB
  • 1993: DAB network of four transmitters set up in the London area
  • 1995: BBC's digital radio service launches
  • 1999: DAB sets become commercially available in UK
  • 2002: BBC launches five national DAB-only services: 6 Music, 1Xtra, BBC 7, Asian Network, and 5 live sports extra

One curious feature of the DAB story is that it was an invention not of the naughties, nor even the nineties - but was first pioneered as far back as 1981.

The technology began development at the Institut für Rundfunktechnik in Munich and throughout the decade was the focus of the Europe-wide Eureka 147 research project.

But the first commercial DAB receivers were not available in the UK until 1999 - begging the question: what took them so long?

The format is, after all, only now beginning to catch on in the UK - more than a decade after its public launch.

Figures from Rajar show that, in March 2010, 24% of all radio listening was digital, compared with 66% on AM or FM radio - a rise of 20% compared with the same period in 2009.

The remainder listen to radio via the internet, digital television and other outlets.

Independent radio analyst Grant Goddard believes that if there had been significant consumer take-up of DAB in the 1990s, it could by now have become the dominant format.

Start Quote

Progress was extremely slow”

End Quote Grant Goddard Independent Radio Analyst

He argues that the fact it was developed by a multitude of European governments and state broadcasters, such as the BBC, via Eureka 147 rather than by the private sector was a crucial factor in delaying its launch.

"If Nokia develop something, they'll be bringing out the handsets before you know it," he says.

"Because DAB was a pan-European development, you had to have agreement from all sides before you could do anything. That meant progress was extremely slow."

But this alone did not account for the hold-up. The sheer complexity of introducing and regulating the system was also a major factor, Mr Goddard adds.

Exaggerated

"Each country had to then implement legislation for the spectrum to be used by DAB , because you didn't have a pan-European system," he adds.

"Then, each media regulator had to find ways to licence the spectrum. It was a hugely complicated undertaking."

As a result, Mr Goddard suspects that DAB's time may have passed before it even arrived, with other forms of digital technology - such as broadband - allowing listeners to access radio on their laptops and phones.

Start Quote

The initial claims for DAB were exaggerated”

End Quote Paul Donovan Sunday Times

But Paul Donovan, radio critic of the Sunday Times and a strong supporter of DAB, believes its tipping point in public popularity cannot be too far off.

He blames a failure of manufacturers and broadcasters to collaborate effectively - the BBC began broadcasting DAB in 1995, he points out, but sets were not commercially available for another four years.

"The initial claims for DAB were exaggerated - for instance, it was said that it could provide CD-quality sound, which it doesn't," he says. "This affected the public's perception.

"But look at the success of 6 Music and BBC 7 - this is clearly something that people want. As coverage extends people more people will buy into it. And it's with car radios that DAB really comes into its own."

DAB advocates say it is on the road that the format's self-tuning properties are best showcased, and the government says it is working with car manufacturers to make digital radios standard in cars by 2013. Additionally, the BBC says it will improve in-car reception by placing more transmitters near major motorway networks as part of a programme to increase UK coverage from 85 to 92%.

The new government, however, has rowed back on its predecessor's target to switch off analogue by the middle of the decade, with Mr Vaizey promising that if people are still listening to, say, the BBC on FM by 2015, then that "will continue".

Whether DAB turns out to be the future, as Paul Donovan expects, or is already part of the past, as Grant Goddard argues, it has already consumed a sizeable chunk of broadcasting history.

A selection of your comments appears below

DAB Radio sets are far too expensive. That has been the brake on its adoption.

Steve, Merseyside

Mobile internet is in no possible way an alternative to DAB! Anyone with a phone will know how patchy 1G coverage is, let alone the 3G required for internet radio broadcasts. Our NIMBYish attitude to mobile phone masts means we will continue to have third-world levels of 3G coverage long into the future. THe FM waveband is impossibly crowded and restrictive, which is why some of the best content on radio, like 6 Music, is only available on DAB. We must keep DAB going, even if FM is retained for local stations.

Noam, Oxford

The biggest problem with DAB is coverage and I don't mean just remote parts of the UK. Even in Birmingham, which I visit regularly to visit relatives, has a number of black spots where you just can't pick up a DAB signal. Improve it to 92%? No, that's not good enough! Concentrate on getting transmitters sorted out and you will get yourpopularity tipping point much, much sooner.

Irene Paulton, St Andrews

I like the idea behind DAB, but it does not feel like a long term alternative to FM. It suffers from a similar problem as the commercial side of Freeview - there is a focus on quantity rather than quality. I am sorry to say this, but scrap it and build a new platform. Use modern technology, and run it with a focus on audio quality, content quality and robustness of technology.

Mal, UK

The DAB system currently used in the UK gives poor sound quality and coverage. Indoors and on the move, signals break-up constantly.

Roy Morris, Beaconsfield, UK

Thank you for the background on DAB radios. Here in the U.S., HD Radio, which is also a digital radio format for AM and FM, has also taken a long time to catch on. Between satellite radio, internet radio, and radio via cable it seems that the consumer here has had some distractions, but also I think radio stations and the electronics industries behind HD Radio hasn't done much to educate radio listeners. I agree with the writer that the explosion of internet radio caused me to put off buying an HD radio. I was close to buying a stand-alone internet radio unit last year, but instead I received an iPod Touch as a gift, and armed with a number of Apps, I now have access to thousands of digital radio stations around the world. As much as I love the digital age, I have a few tube radios and "transistor" radios that I fear one day will have background noise where stations used to be found. The only question is when this will happen.

Vann, Duluth, Georgia USA

DAB is a solution in search of a problem. For most people in most locations, analogue AM and FM were fine...And FM provided excellent quality transmissions. Radio is not like TV. TV is a mass of short programs divided into channels...Radio is music, news and so on in a continuum. The number of TV channels has always been a very important factor in the overall viewer experience, whereas with radio, people tend to settle on a particular station... It is only now, since the wifi and mobile revolution that the bands traditionally occupied by analogue radio have become valuable enough to justify digital transmission. And that's all about multiplexing and compression. Essentially...Digital is only now becoming an essential means of freeing up spectrum. So...Why has it taken so long? That's why.

Guy Littleford, Cairns

I personally have found DAB to be a great disappointment. The design of the receivers leaves me cold and I cannot get any reception in my home. I regularly either cannot pick up any stations or receive very loud static noise. Fortunately, the DAB radio I received as a gift (I would never have bought one) has a FM option and I use this instead. Until the reception issues are resolved and manufacturers hire some decent product designers, I cannot see DAB taking a hold in the UK.

Lousie, Worthing

We have two digital radios in our home, one portable and one as part of our sound set up. However, I still prefer to listen via FM or AM because the quality and reliability is so much better. Digital reception seems to depend on the weather, where the radio is positioned, the time of day etc. In other words it is totally unreliable and until it improves I will be sticking with non-digital. I trust that medium and long wave will still be available until the entire population is able to receive digital in a less irritating manner! Test match special is a particular favourite which I would be deeply saddened to lose.

Ann Young, Baldock, UK

I used to listen to DAB constantly... in fact I've had one since about 2003. Unfortunately I moved house (just to the next street) and moving the radio 300 metres has resulted in a total loss of signal. If signal strength drops below 60% the DAB cuts off the signal totally rather than have the signal break up. In effect the radio is useless unless I want to balance on a chair holding it out the window... I live in the middle of nottingham, not up a mountain in Wales too. God knows what reception is like in the middle of nowhere if it doesn't work properly in a major city

Peter, Notts

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