David Prosser: Ford gives digital radio a much-needed boost

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The Independent Online

Outlook Don't get too excited, but fans of digital radio ought to extend a vote of thanks to Ford, which has just announced that all of its cars sold in the UK will come with DAB radios as standard by the end of 2012. That's a year ahead of the deadline the rest of the car industry has set.

It is an important move, given the continuing scepticism about whether it is really possible fordigital switchover to take place in 2015, as this Government, like its predecessor, hopes. The agreement is that digital radio must have at least a 50 per cent share of the audience before a decision is formally taken on when the switchover will take place – and that two years' notice will be given. For 2015 to be viable, therefore, today's audience penetration figure for DAB, which is 25 per cent according to the latest estimates, has to rise significantly in quite a short space of time.

Car radio, where digital's share is currently just 3 per cent, is certainly an area where there is potential for a big contribution. But with the end of 2013 as the deadline for all new cars to come with digital radios as standard, the automotive sector is currently going to get the switchover campaign over the line in time for the Government to hit its target. An increase in the pace from Ford might help, though.

Not that we seem much closer to meeting some other challenges. The BBC continues to row with the commercial radio sector about who will pay for the roll-out of digital services. That is likely to see another criteria for switchover – that local digital radio is available to 90 per cent of the population – get in the way. Meanwhile, listeners continue to complain about the quality of the signal in many areas. And there is no sign of any incentives to persuade consumers buy digital sets, with a campaign for radio version of the scrappage scheme that boosted car sales during the recession stymied by the state of the public finances. If the radio industry really wants to encourage higher take-up – and it is the industry, rather than consumers, that has most to gain from switchover – it is going to have to finance such schemes itself.

The move from Ford is the first bit of good news the digital switchover movement has had for some time. But while the car-maker's initiative will be of some help, this is a road with plenty more bumps to come.