Nordland lost FM in storm of DAB static

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Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was deluged with hundreds of calls for help and complaints on Wednesday after the long stretch of Norway from Trøndelag north to the border of Troms near Narvik lost FM radio coverage with the ceremonial turn of a switch. Even some DAB radios on fishing boats and on land fell silent, because of poor coverage or the need for a scan and re-set, raising the possibility that other FM shutdowns may be postponed.

Owners of fishing boats like those here at Svolvær in Lofoten are especially critical of the FM shutdown and switch to DAB, because many have lost radio broadcasting entirely while out at sea. There are also problems on land. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

NRK officials were doing their best to put a positive spin on Norway’s long-anticipated but highly controversial transition to DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting). NRK and commercial broadcasters P4 and Radio Norge stations rolled out a large new set of radio channels. DAB channels that only were available in metropolitan areas will now be available all over the country. Radio chiefs hailed what they called “an historic day” that also has caught attention abroad.

While more than 40 countries around the world also offer DAB, Norwegian politicians and not least state broadcaster NRK itself have been keen to become the first country on the planet to also shut down FM. They saw no need to maintain two “parallel networks” at a cost of roughly NOK 200 million a year. That’s now forcing every radio listener in Norway to buy DAB radios or adapters for their FM radios, and it’s not happening without plenty of protests.

Problems that cropped up on Wednesday, after Nordland County became the first to shut down FM broadcasting, suggest that shutting down FM elsewhere may be postponed after all. “We have to follow this closely, and think through this carefully, before we continue if something isn’t functioning,” Svein Harberg, media policy spokesman for the Conservative Party, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday.

‘No coverage’
DAB was definitely not functioning in several areas where it was supposed to on Wednesday. DN sent a reporter and photographer out on one of the many fishing boats active off the coast of Nordland near Lofoten and Vesterålen. The fishing itself has been fantastic lately, but now some boat owners are worried about heading out to sea without reliable radio broadcasting.

“This DAB is terribly dependent on the weather,” claimed Jan Fredriksen on board his boat Reinsbåen. “I have tried to screw and screw (the digital dial) but here there’s no coverage.”

NRK has promised coverage up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) from shore, and Fredriksen’s boat has antennas that are seven feet high. He still loses mobile phone coverage and could show DN on Wedesday how DAB doesn’t function well either. “We spent an hour on a trip from Skårvågen to Nykvågen, and had DAB radio for a total of five minutes,” Fredriksen told DN.

According to official maps showing DAB coverage, it should be good along that stretch of the coast off Vesterålen. The DAB radio on Fredriksen’s boat fell silent, however, as soon as they left the harbour area and, of course, his FM radio no longer worked.

“There are surely lots of festive speeches being made about the DAB opening, but not many out here,” said Fredriksen, who also is the leader of Nordland Fylkesfiskarlag, the local fishing industry’s trade association. “We fishermen have to rely on radio for warnings and weather forecasts. Shutting down the FM network is like gambling with our life and health.”

NRK on the offense and defense
NRK was braced for problems and complaints and fielded more than 600 calls within the first few hours of DAB-only radio. An NRK spokeswoman said few were rooted in a lack of coverage, but rather in problems tuning in new DAB radios or those that listeners already had. Many also are struggling to install DAB adaptors for their FM car radios, which also require a new antenna.

The sheer expense of the DAB transition has also angered many, not least the owner of a trucking firm in Nordland who waited until the last minute to buy DAB radios and adapters for his fleet of around 80 vehicles. While NRK boss Thor Gjermund Eriksen has claimed that it’s possible to buy a DAB radio “for a few hundred-kroner bills,” many are far more expensive than that. Adapters also cost as much as NOK 1,200 (USD 140) or more. Norway’s national automobile association, NAF, is worried that fully two-thirds of all vehicles registered in Norway still lack DAB radios. In addition come all foreign-registered vehicles in Norway, not least tourists on holiday and commercial trucks.

Eriksen claimed Wednesday evening, though, that he thought the first FM shutdown and DAB-only debut had gone “quite well.” He’s been under pressure from the two political parties in Parliament that wanted to postpone or even cancel the FM shutdown, the Progress Party and the Center Party. The latter, which champions the interests of outlying areas, often demands that rural residents should also be able to enjoy the services and economic advantages of living in urban areas. Eriksen used their own argument on Wednesday in repeatedly stressing that now radio listeners all over Norway will have the same greatly expanded selection of radio channels. He has also told owners of suddenly unusuable FM radios that they can be recycled.

He’ll need to brace for more criticism, though. Even some Oslo-area residents who already have DAB radios in their cars have complained that coverage falls out in various areas, even on a drive from Lommedalen to Sandvika, or between Sollihøgda and Hønefoss, a heavily trafficked area.

NRK claims help is available
NRK, which has had to endure being referred to lately as “The Ministry of Truth” by DAB critics, claims to be ready, willing and able to help DAB users in despair, via its website nrk.no (external link, in Norwegian) or via telefon (23 04 70 00). Little if any information could be found in English online, but NRK’s “DAB helpers” can speak English or possibly other languages if necessary.

Harberg of the Conservative Party, which also holds government power at present and is responsible for ensuring the DAB rollout, said that in the “worst case scenario,” the pending shutdown of FM radio in Norway’s other counties may be postponed. He promised DN that the government and the parliament will also be following how the FM shutdown proceeds, as did Bård Folke Fredriksen, a state secretary for the Progress Party.

“When an area loses FM coverage, NRK and Vegvesenet (the state highway department) must send a report back to the culture ministry (in charge of the DAB rollout), so that we can report back to Parliament,” Folke Fredriksen told DN. “We can go into the documentation ourselves to see whether anything needs to be done.”

When the fishing boat Reinsbåen returned to port on Wednesday, the leader of another local fishing organizaton was waiting on the pier. He said he’s also lost DAB coverage both before and after entering the tunnel from Sortland. “We’ve reported that, but nothing happens,” Jan Arne Skog told DN.

The next FM shutdown is scheduled to occur in Trøndelag (where the city of Trondheim is located) and Møre og Romsdal on February 8. As reported earlier, here are the FM shutdown dates for other counties at present:

Telemark, Buskerud, Hedmark and Oppland – April 26

Sogn og Frordane, Hordaland, Rogaland and Agder – June 21

Østfold, Vestfold, Oslo and Akershus – September 20

Troms and Finnmark – December 13

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund