Static over FM radio switch-off
February 7, 2011
Norway’s government has announced plans to turn off FM radio and switch to digital audio broadcasting (DAB) in 2017 – a move that may prove unpopular with Norwegians who have not yet warmed to the digital format.
The government has given radio operators four years to achieve a goal of getting half of listeners to use DAB – and, if the target is not met by January 1 2015, the anticipated 2017 switch-off will be postponed until 2019, when it will become irrevocable. Ministers also placed conditions to ensure that DAB was less expensive and difficult to install in cars before the deadline.
Whether the radio operators can meet the government’s demands remains to be seen, especially given the lukewarm reception Norwegian consumers have given to DAB thus far. Current daily listenership figures show that just 8 percent of the country listens to DAB, with the 300,000 digital radios sold contrasting starkly with the estimated 15 million FM radios found across the country. Criticism of DAB has centered on its quality, the expense of paying for a new radio (particularly for car users) or fears of a loss of local stations that cannot fund transferral costs.
Controversy has greeted moves to end FM services in other countries, notably the UK, where the government was forced to downgrade its 2015 target date to an “aspiration” last year following vociferous campaigning by consumers who, just as in Norway, feared a loss of local radio stations and the expense of replacing FM radios. Nonetheless, research by TNS Gallup in Norway, reported by NRK, shows that 62 percent of respondents were positive to replacing their FM sets in the event of the switch-over. Fears that younger consumers were less positive to DAB were also not reflected in the poll, although interest remains higher in older age groups.
It is well-known that NRK and other major industry players have lobbied hard for a switch-over to a DAB-only network, which is cheaper and easier to maintain. This, together with the fact that a two-year delay between 2017 and 2019 could carry with it potentially massive extra expenditure on a soon-to-be obsolete technology, is hoped to prod the radio sector to begin a transfer of services to DAB as soon as possible. A number of companies have already joined together to form a digital radio conglomerate to accelerate this transition.
One further complication is that the government has left open to radio companies the choice over which type of DAB service to use. In addition to standard DAB, there is an even higher quality service called DAB+. While many new radios can handle both formats, there are fears that older DAB radios without DAB+ capabilities could also become obsolete if a large number of companies choose DAB+. Radio operators will however be able to broadcast in both formats.