A last-ditch effort by some top politicians to postpone the looming shutdown of Norway’s FM radio network failed in Parliament on Wednesday. That means FM radio will still go off the air as planned during the course of next year, forcing listeners over to DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting).
Norway’s controversial decision to become the first country in the world to shut down its FM radio network was made back in 2011, with the Labour Party (which held government power at the time) voting in favour again now. That gave the current Conservatives-led government the majority support it needed on Wednesday to proceed with the planned FM shutdown it’s been charged with implementing.
The forced transition to DAB will thus begin January 11, when Nordland County becomes the first region of the country to lose FM radio coverage. Most FM radios will no longer work, forcing consumers to either buy new DAB radios or adapters for FM radios, including those in cars, that can be converted to transmit DAB. The FM shutdown will then be phased in region-by-region, ending with Troms and Finnmark counties in Northern Norway next December. The Oslo area will switch over to DAB from September 20.
Complaints have flown over the cost to consumers. An estimated 8 million FM radios in Norway will be rendered useless, and the cost of replacing them with new DAB radios is considerable. Adapters alone, including those needed for most car radios, are priced from NOK 700 (USD 83) and upwards.
Proponents, including the head of the broadcasters’ trade association Digitalradio Norge, claim that as many as seven out of 10 Norwegian households already have at least one DAB radio, since state broadcaster NRK introduced its first DAB channel as long ago as 1995. Enthusiasts also claim that DAB represents good radio technology that offers access to far more channels than an already over-crowded FM dial ever could.
‘Sensational’ disregard for consumer choice
Newspaper Aftenposten questioned in a commentary on Wednesday, however, why Norwegians have had to be forced over to DAB. Norway currently is one of 19 countries worldwide offering DAB regularly, with the technology exisiting side-by-side the FM network. Free-market thinking would traditionally imply, argued Aftenposten, that consumers would voluntarily choose DAB over FM if they felt it best-suited their needs. In this case, Norwegians will no longer have any choice. Aftenposten noted that major broadcast and commercial players in Norway (not least NRK and Telenor, which owns the Norkring company that has built and will maintain the DAB system) simply don’t want the expense of running the FM network any longer.
“It’s therefore sensational that the country’s national assembly sets aside consumers’ ability to define their own needs for new technology, and force billions of kroner in extra costs upon radio listeners, to meet a technology shift that has not been met by demand but by strong industry interests,” Aftenposten wrote.
The Parliament nonetheless pressed forward with the forced transition to DAB on Wednesday, over objections and concerns expressed by the Center Party (which represents rural interests), the Greens Party, which has coverage and environmental concerns, and even the Progress Party, which shares government power with the Conservatives. The Center Party in particular contended that its constituents have complained of poor DAB coverage, and worried about the possibility of not receiving radio reports for everything from weather to road conditions. All three parties had proposed various proposals to postpone the FM network shutdown, citing concerns over inadequate DAB coverage, security and preparedness issues and consumer expense.
The Labour Party then claimed it was so concerned by the questions raised by the Progress Party that a scheduled debate on Tuesday was moved to Wednesday, so that Progress Party ministers responsible for coverage, security and preparedness could be called in to respond. It all turned into what a Dagens Næringsliv (DN) commentator called “radio theater,” with all the political parties scrambling to cover their backs if anything goes wrong with the conversion.
The objecting parties lost. Labour claimed to be sufficiently reassured that that the government coalition had control over its mandate to implement the switch to DAB, even though one of the coalition’s own parties (Progress) opposed it.
Torvmark of Digitalradio Norge noted that the transition to DAB radio has been a political issue for 20 years, but that DAB maintained majority support among politicians. He also noted that consumers can convert many of their existing radios and deliver those that can’t be converted to recycling stations or electronics stores, which are obligated to take them in and “send them on to a new life.”