Norway: New Vanguard of Digital Radio?

Last month, the Norwegian Culture Ministry published a report calling for the turnoff of all analog radio broadcast services in the country by 2017.
Domestic boosters of the plan claim that the switch to the Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) protocol represents “a tool for democratization and a vast increase in choice.” Although DMB is a different technology than HD Radio, the U.S. digital radio broadcasting standard, both suffer from a technologically-agnostic failure to provide qualitative improvements to existing analog radio service.
There is nothing in the Norwegian report to suggest the turnoff will occur on time. Indeed, it is filled with caveats. It says the DMB transmission infrastructure must be built out so that it reaches 90% of Norwegians (100% for the state broadcaster, NRK) by 2015.
DMB service must also provide “additional value” to Norwegian radio listeners, interpreted as an increase in available radio programs and rudimentary datacasting services. Furthermore, digital radio listenership must account for at least half of all radio listenership in the country by mid-decade; this includes “inexpensive and technically satisfactory solutions for radio reception in cars.”
If none of these criteria are met, the transition will be postponed at least two years, until 2019.
To claim that Norway is the “first to decide to switch off analogue radio” is disingenuous. A few years ago, the government of the United Kingdom proposed turning off analog radio broadcasts by 2015.
Given the utter lack of enthusiasm for digital radio technology among both broadcasters and listeners, and a diminishing listening trend in digital radio programming since the service was first launched there more than 10 years ago, actually effecting this 2015 transition is a pipe dream.
The U.K. is portrayed in Europe as a leader in any digital radio transition, having been the first country to establish regular digital radio service and responsible for the most detailed policymaking on the subject to-date. Yet it is not the only European country to back away from an analog radio switchoff.
Germany also proposed terminating analog radio service in 2015; this has now slipped to 2020. France proposed building out a digital radio infrastructure in 2009 that would cover 99% of the population by 2013, and planned to phase out its analog stations by that date. Today, the trade lobby for France’s commercial broadcasters opposes any digital radio transition and there is no government movement to actualize it.
Truth be told, Norway’s history with digital radio is actually quite checkered. The number of analog radio receivers sold there outpaces digital receivers by a factor of eight. Last year, sales of Internet-capable radio receivers surpassed the sale of digital radios. The Norwegian Electronics Industry Association estimates that there are somewhere between 12 and 15 million analog FM radios in regular use, compared to 290,000 digital radio receivers (a penetration rate of 2%).
Norway’s adoption of DMB actually represents the country’s second attempt to digitize radio, having failed with an earlier protocol. It is notable, however, because it consolidates the digitization of all broadcast media into a single bitstream – of which existing radio services are only a part.
At last week’s annual conference of the Association for European Radios (the pan-European equivalent of the NAB), the European Union’s Digital Agenda Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, lamented the fact that no country seems willing to part with their analog radio service.
“How can radio best participate in convergence?,” she asked the assembled broadcasters. “What incentives would encourage user[s] and manufacturers to shift to the digital format?”
That’s a very open question.

One thought on “Norway: New Vanguard of Digital Radio?”

Comments are closed.