So who thinks DAB is the future? Not enough of us to make it so

Ditching analogue radio was meant to be progress. Don't be so sure

It isn't very often an advert en- courages you not to buy a product. But such is the anger aroused by proposals to kill off FM radio that a campaign is afoot to discourage consumers from buying digital radios this Christmas.

The idea comes in retaliation to a campaign launched two weeks ago, in which comedians David Mitchell and Arthur Smith have been extolling the merits of DAB radio in a push to get more than 50 per cent of audiences switching from analogue.

If that all sounds confusing, it's because the future of British radio has never been less certain. Since January 2009, when Lord Carter's report said that the future of radio was digital, scare stories have hinted that FM will one day be switched off, whether we are ready for it or not. This year's Digital Economy Act said that Britain must prepare for a switchover, and 2015 has been pencilled in as a date, though this has now been put back to 2017.

But the assumption that a switchover is inevitable is wrong; like ID cards, it could simply never happen. A Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) spokeswoman said that it would be dropped if it failed to attract enough support. "We're not going to force DAB on to an unwilling public," she said. "The target date is a working date, but the switchover is clearly conditional on meeting the 50 per cent target."

Although the coalition has committed itself to proposals set out by the previous government, it also points out that they remain conditional on two points. First, that at least 50 per cent of listeners are using digital radio by 2013; second, that geographical coverage of DAB matches that of FM. Neither criteria are anywhere near being met.

Currently, 35 per cent of radio listeners use a DAB set. To meet the target would require an annual increase of 15 per cent for the next three years. Many listeners say DAB radios are not as good as they are cracked up to be: the sound quality is worse, not better, they say; they use more battery power; they are more expensive; cars do not yet have them; they don't work well on the move; pirate radios can't broadcast via them; and the scrapping of perfectly good analogue radios is ecologically unsound.

The main complaint, however, is that the DAB signal remains poor in many areas. Thus a catch-22 situation: a switchover cannot take place until digital audiences grow, but while coverage remains poor, there is no incentive to switch. The biggest barrier to resolving this impasse is money.

The roll-out of the DAB transmitter network is expected to cost between £100m and £200m, though the full cost will not be known until next year. Who will pay is proving to be a major sticking point within the industry. Ed Vaizey, a Culture minister, met representatives of the BBC and commercial sector on Tuesday to settle how the cost is to be spread. Vaizey has said he wants the BBC to make a significant contribution, though no provision was made for it in the recent licence-fee settlement.

The DCMS spokeswoman describes this issue as "a live discussion", but says that it is likely to end up as "a division of cost between public and private".

The trouble is that the commercial sector is reluctant to invest in a venture still riddled with uncertainty. Companies including Bauer Radio and Global Radio refused to air Digital Radio UK's ad campaign last month. They said that encouraging consumers to invest in a product they may not be able to use was "fundamentally immoral and dishonest".

DAB take-up has been sluggish in Britain since its introduction in 1995, though better than elsewhere in Europe. Digital Radio UK, the body responsible for promoting it, has signalled its intention to make 2011 its most active campaigning year to date. But an advisory body warned the Government in September against "bullying" or "scaring" consumers into abandoning analogue radios.

Indeed, the enthusiasm of successive governments for the switchover has prompted some to question their motive. One suggestion is that, once obsolete, the FM bandwidth could be sold to mobile phone companies.

The DCMS spokeswoman said there were no plans for a sell-off "at the moment", but did not rule it out. "We may come to a situation where a proportion of bandwidth is no longer required, and will consider possible other uses for it." However, she added that it was intended that FM be made available to community radio stations.

In the meantime, the future of radio remains in the hands of the listeners. If the public chooses not to invest in digital radios this Christmas or in the coming months, DAB will go the way of ID cards.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor