European Digital Radio Transition A Mixed Bag

This month, the Media Intelligence Service of the European Broadcasting Union published a comprehensive overview of the state of digital radio broadcasting throughout the continent. Unlike in the United States, where there’s little love for our proprietary, spectrum-squatting HD Radio system, many European countries are making such great strides with their digital-exclusive DAB/DAB+ networks that they’re mulling the sunsetting of analog radio within the next decade or so.
European Brodcasting Union DAB/DAB+ Map, 2016The EBU report contains mini-briefs on 21 countries and says states like Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom lead the way in building out their digital radio systems and enticing listeners to migrate to them. Other countries such as Germany and France – who were key innovators in the DAB/DAB+ development cycle – only committed to building out a digital radio network earlier this decade. Even so, in Germany the sales of digital radio receivers already outpace analog radio sales.
Then there are states like Sweden, which earlier this year formally abandoned any analog/digital radio broadcast transition entirely, preferring instead to wait and see how DAB/DAB+ takes root elsewhere on the continent. Swedish radio listeners already consume an inordinately high amount of audio content via streaming to mobile devices, and the state’s public service broadcasters are more interested in growing their online platforms than building a new one on-air.
The primary factors that a govern a country’s adoption of digital radio include the breadth and quality of DAB/DAB+ network coverage, the choice of digital-only content, and market/regulatory support, especially when it comes to receiver uptake. The price-points for DAB/DAB+ receivers are eminently affordable now; you can pick up a digital radio receiver for as little as $15-20 and more automobile manufacturers now carry one as standard equipment. Even so, only in the most advanced adoptive countries has DAB/DAB+ receiver penetration crested 50%.
Many countries use short-term “pop-up” digital radio stations to showcase the technology and spur public interest. (In the UK, these stations may be finding a semblance of permanency.) And while some are indeed beginning to switch off AM analog systems, there’s no hard data showing that those savings are being directly reinvested in radio broadcasting’s digital transition.
The EBU report also outlines continued threats to digital radio’s rollout, including funding cuts to public service broadcasters (who have often been the first-adopters of digital radio systems in Europe), the lack of close collaboration between the commercial and noncommercial sectors of the broadcast industry, and a lack of political will to consider digital radio in the context of a country’s larger commitments to twenty-first century media policy.
All told, while slightly fewer than half of all EBU member-countries have embarked on a digital radio broadcast initiative, they represent the most advanced countries on the continent both enonomically and technologically. Among the plethora of wireless audio delivery services now available, DAB/DAB+ must still fight mightily for market share, and in many respects this struggle more resembles the challenges of launching a startup than shepherding a legacy from one platform to another. Perhaps that is for the best, for it forces digital broadcasters to jettison analog conventions that range far beyond what their transmitters do.

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