Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Shipwrecked on desert island DAB

One important question was sidestepped by the Digital Radio Working Group in its enthusiasm for the DAB platform in the Final Report: if DAB only comes to be adopted in a handful of countries, what are the ‘opportunity costs’ for UK consumers? In other words, if UK consumers are forced by government policy to purchase DAB receivers to replace their analogue radios, what other consumer hardware will they not purchase, either because it does not incorporate DAB radio, or because they have already spent their allocated budget replacing all five or six analogue receivers in their household with DAB radios?

The answer might be provided by the annual International Consumer Electronics Show [CES] taking place this week in Las Vegas, which
describes itself as “the world’s largest consumer technology tradeshow” with 2,700 exhibiting companies, 500 expert speakers and 200 conference sessions.

The Digital Radio Working Group had written in its Final Report that:
“…. the DAB standard used in the UK and all three variants will be receivable on [radio] sets which manufacturers will be producing from [2009], so creating a European-wide market for digital radio.”

You might imagine that such innovations in DAB radio hardware would be reflected at this week’s CES event? Apparently not. Only 6 out of the 2,700 exhibiting companies
list ‘DAB’ in their descriptions – the UK’s Frontier Silicon (“the leading supplier of audio processors for digital radios powering over 70% of all DAB radio products”); Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute (“audio/video compression technologies”); Taiwan’s Joycell (broadcast antenna manufacturers); China’s Blue Tinum and Shenzhen Baoan Fenda which manufacture DAB/FM/internet radios; and Hong Kong’s Kenwin Industrial which makes plastic injection moulds for electronics products. Additionally, not one of the 200 conference sessions at CES is about DAB. The reality is that, for most of the 130,000 people attending the event, DAB will simply not exist.

But, if you do a search for ‘internet radio’ at CES, you find a
list of 393 exhibitors, 320 products and 32 conference sessions. Now compare that with ‘DAB’: 6 exhibitors, 8 products, 0 sessions. Furthermore, the newly formed Internet Media Device Alliance, a group of companies significantly involved in internet radio, will be launching at CES. One of its steering committee members is Anthony Sethill, CEO of Frontier Silicon, who said: “Frontier’s role in the formation of the IMDA affirms our position as the leading supplier of Internet radio connected audio products to the global consumer electronics market.” The significant word there is ‘global’. Despite its current dominance of the largely UK market for DAB, Frontier needs a global market for its product lines…. something that DAB’s limited take-up will never offer it.

So why does the Digital Radio Working Group want to shipwreck UK radio listeners on a desert island of DAB (for accuracy, I should add that you can take your DAB radio to Denmark or Norway and it will work there too)? The answer might be in paragraph 3.10 of its Report, which states:

“We strongly believe that in order for radio to preserve the qualities which make it such a valued part of our everyday lives, and to allow it to build a strong future, it must have a space where it can be the master of its own destiny and have the freedom to take risks” [emphasis added].

If you replace the word ‘radio’ with ‘the BBC and UK commercial radio companies’ and then read this sentence again, it becomes perfectly clear that what the Working Group is advocating is protectionism of the British radio broadcasting industry – protectionism from unregulated radio content delivered from non-UK sources via internet radio. Heaven forbid that we UK residents might prefer listening to Ryan Seacrest over Johnny Vaughan, because the government will seemingly do as much as possible to stop such an outrage happening.

If you think this is a fantastical notion, I suggest you read paragraph 3.9 of the same Report, which is unapologetically ‘patriotic’:
Radio is an important part of the national discourse and perhaps an even more important voice in local democracy. These principles are the bedrock of radio in the UK and we believe they are something which citizens not only value, but expect”.

The fact is that UK radio, much more than television, offers an easy platform for politicians and their policies to be propagated to mass audiences of voters (viz Radio 4’s Today programme). Incredibly, the Central Office of Information has long been commercial radio’s biggest advertiser! The best way to preserve this cosy relationship is to build a wall around it.

For the mandarins, it might look like a nice walled garden to play in. For us consumers, it has all the hallmarks of a content prison.

1 comment:

swlistener said...

It would be interesting to know where DRM could usefully fit into the picture. It could offer useful coverage on a European scale for a UK audience and EU broadcasters seem to be slowly embracing it. I find it very disappointing that I still cannot go and buy a DRM capable receiver from any mainstream online/high street retailer in the UK, nor from any of the specialist UK Ham/Communications suppliers.