It’s a tale of two futures for broadcasting. In the United States, as the radio industry and regulators wrestle with a poorly-designed and proprietary digital radio standard, online competitors are eroding the market share of stations and redefining radio itself in the process. Our reaction so far has been carefully-cultivated denial and wild swings between cheerleading and hand-wringing. Contrast that with Europe, which has widely adopted the Eureka 147 DAB standard. Now nearly 30 years old, DAB has gone through an evolution of its own, and the latest variant is called DAB+.
Many countries that initially adopted DAB are rebuilding their networks to accommodate DAB+. Cross-compatible receivers are on the market, and since the system works on non-broadcast spectrum, countries have some flexibility on how to build and deploy their digital radio networks.
Enough countries have built them out to a meaningful extent now that the European Broadcasting Union offers a toolkit to help countries plan and execute their digital radio transitions. After closer examination of the states of digital radio in Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, the EBU says the key to a successful digital radio system is what it calls the “five Cs”: coverage, content, costs, collaboration, and communication. Norway’s probably the furthest along in the transition process: the state broadcaster reports DAB+ signals now cover 99.5% of the population, of which more than half regularly listen to digital stations. Norway’s long declared that the end-state of its transition would be the phasing out of analog broadcasting entirely, and as of now that switch-off is slated for 2017.
The United Kingdom was the first major adopter of DAB and set an important precedent in network design by clustering multiple stations together into a single transmission outlet, called a multiplex. The practice of multiplexing centralized the engineering-side of broadcasting quite cleanly, but even a network higher-power multiplexes leave coverage gaps — which in a digital evironment means complete loss of signal. There are only a limited number of channels available on any given multiplex, and that sort of scarcity has also inflated the cost of access to the airwaves. Furthermore, as multiplex operators squeeze as many channels as they can onto the system, the bandwidth available for each channel declines, which harms audio quality. So after some experimentation with small-scale DAB transmission in 2012, UK regulators now plan to allow as many as ten local digital stations to take to the air over the next year. Maybe it’s better to build out a digital radio network from the ground up than top-down.
The relatively mature state of digital radio in Europe is also having knock-on effects in Asia, where many countries are solidifying their transition-plans. There, too, most are adopting DAB+, though they are also complementing it with Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), which can be implemented on the traditional AM/FM bands. The Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union just wrapped up its annual digital summit, where at least one speaker declared analog radio a “dead end.”
Here in the heart of empire, it’s as if this global consensus didn’t exist — or that it doesn’t matter because we create our own sphere of influence. In the end, however, we ignore the future at our own peril.