U.K. DAB Policy Goes Back to the Future

Grant Goddard, the go-to analyst on all things related to digital radio in the United Kingdom, penned a post this week about regulators’ latest attempt to “understand” the deficiencies of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) in an ongoing effort to “correct” them.
Here’s the kicker: this will require the intensive study of analog FM radio. The exercise’s apparent goal is to provide some sort of benchmark-metric for explaining why DAB’s proliferation has not lived up to expectations.
One of the main problems with all digital broadcast systems is the cliff effect. Unlike analog broadcasting – where if a signal weakens you still get it (albeit with some degradation in quality) – if a DAB signal falls below a specific receivable threshold it’s simply not there at all. You can see this effect quite distinctly in the reception of digital television, with its dropouts, stuttering, and pixelation.
This has proven to be a significant problem for broadcasters and listeners. Reasons for the coverage deficiencies of DAB vary, but most are related to the layout of the DAB multiplex transmitter infrastructure. In many countries, policies governing the placement and power of DAB multiplexes were developed to essentially mirror the existing provision of FM radio.
Modeling the coverage aspects of a digital broadcast service on an analog radio system makes little sense. Overly-weak signals, including problems with building penetration, make DAB literally unlistenable in situations where analog radio can still be heard. Goddard estimates that in Manchester, a metropolitan area of more than two million people, listeners have “a one-in-three chance” today of missing out on DAB reception entirely; there is no “distant” or “fringe” coverage in the digital broadcast world.
The rationale behind multiplex layout (which took place in the U.K. more than a dozen years ago) had a lot to do with broadcaster and regulator anxiety about DAB’s initial “disruptiveness” to existing analog broadcast business models and shifting strategic goals involving what DAB was actually designed to accomplish regarding the medium of radio itself.
Like HD Radio in the United States, the failure of DAB is due to a multiplicity of factors – and any effort that falls short of holistically addressing this dilemma is an exercise in futility. It doesn’t mean that digital radio doesn’t have a future – it’s just not going to be anchored around one of the presently-available broadcast technologies.
Unfortunately, billions of dollars have been invested in the HD/DAB enterprises, and so such seat-reshuffling is the only option left short of a radical rethink of digital radio.
No communications regulator will go there: this is why Goddard calls Ofcom‘s latest DAB research project “[i]ntrinsically…redundant. If FM works well, why bother to analyse why it works? The answer is: because DAB radio does not work. In order to make DAB work, an understanding is deemed necessary of why the system it was intended to replace – FM radio – does work.”
First, digital radio was heralded as a revolution in broadcasting, hyped to wipe analog service off the dial. Then, it became a hopeful supplement to analog radio, once the limitations of its signal coverage, audio quality and programming aspects were better understood. Most recently, digital broadcasting has been considered complementary to analog radio, with firm consensus developing around the notion that FM broadcasting would be the medium’s dominant mode the foreseeable future.
Now – at least in the U.K. – regulators are reexamining the well-distinguished characteristics of a legacy broadcast mode in order to better understand the shortcomings of radio’s supposed “future.” Goddard gets the last word: “Madness? Yes. Self-defeating? Yes. Contempt for radio listeners? Totally.”