Friday, 13 November 2009

FM radio in mobile phones: the universal standard

Although some politicians and civil servants might try to convince us that the UK can lead Europe and the world in technological innovation, new broadcast standards and electronic hardware, the reality is that the sun set on the British Empire a long time ago. Almost none of the gadgets we use are manufactured in the UK, and even those that have British corporate logos glued on the front are inevitably assembled in China or Korea. When global commercial forces make a decision on the adoption of a new consumer mass technology, the best Britain can do is follow in the slipstream and make the most of innovations that the rest of the world is pioneering.

Right now, the new broadcast standard for mobile radio reception is being decided in the corridors of power in Washington DC and in the boardrooms of the mobile phone manufacturers. That standard will be FM radio. This inevitably means that FM radio delivered to on-the-go consumers via mobile devices will become the universal standard for years to come. Please, Ofcom and DCMS [the Department of Culture, Media & Sport], do not bother getting uppity just because you were not consulted by Congress, Nokia, Samsung or Apple. Neither were several hundred other countries around the globe. And please, DCMS and Ofcom, do not even think about committing the UK to going its own sweet way unilaterally on this issue. All it will do is create more embarrassment.

Recall the DCMS-led Digital Radio Working Group which spent a year deliberating on the digital radio issue and included in its Final Report published in December 2008 a note that “consumer groups believe that, once an announcement [of digital radio switchover] is made, no equipment should be sold that does not deliver both DAB and FM”. In the margin, at the time, I had scribbled “in your dreams!” After ten years of DAB broadcasting, there is still not one mobile phone currently on sale in the UK that incorporates DAB radio.

Recall the report from Ingenious Consulting published in January 2009 which suggested that, in order for the DAB platform to succeed for commercial radio, it would need a “commitment [from radio stakeholders] not to pursue alternative technologies to DAB”. So, is the only way to drive consumers’ use of DAB to prevent them from listening to radio on other competing platforms? Will ‘DAB police’ be storming some West Country town next year and taking all the residents’ analogue radios away from them?

Whereas the UK has too often pursued these sort of fundamentally impractical strategies to achieve its aims (and thus usually fails), the US is adopting a much more practical and sensible approach. Almost everyone in the US carries a mobile phone. Therefore, mobile phones should all have FM radios in them. An FM chip costs next to nothing for a mobile phone manufacturer. The benefit to the consumer is that FM radio is free at the point of access and its usage is only limited by the battery power of the phone.

This week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski received a cross-party letter, signed by 60 members of the House of Representatives, encouraging FM radio capability to be included in mobile phones sold in the US. The letter noted that the Warning Alert & Response Network Act of 2006 requires the mobile phone industry to create an emergency alerting system in the US, and it stated:

"There are well over seven hundred million cell phones with FM radios globally. Currently, only a handful of FM radio enabled cell phones are in the U.S. market. There is no excuse for American consumers' access to advanced technology to lag behind that available worldwide."

In June 2008, the commercial broadcasters’ trade body, NAB, had published a report which outlined the potential benefits from including FM radios in mobile phones. “Radio is a service that already reaches 235 million American listeners every week," said NAB president & CEO David Rehr. "With 257 million cell phones currently in service, we're confident that implementation of a new FM-radio feature would result in rapid penetration, benefiting not only the radio business and American consumers, but the cell phone, electronics manufacturing, and music industries as well."

The NAB report included a graph (see below) which displays data supplied by iSuppli Corporation forecasting that, by 2011, 45% of all mobile handsets globally will incorporate FM radio.

It is noteworthy that the US, in this case, seems totally happy to ‘follow’ the rest of the world in incorporating FM radios in its mobile phones, a feature that is already widely available in many other countries (including the UK). The US is not trying to argue that some new proprietary broadcast standard (such as HD Radio) be adopted in phones to further the objectives of a particular commercial US business.

In the UK, we are in a somewhat different position. Mobile phones with FM radios are already out there and being purchased by most consumers. My survey earlier this year of mobile phones available in the UK found that more than half the available models included FM radio (see table below).

It is remarkable that the hardware is already sitting in millions of UK citizens’ pockets with the capability to listen to FM radio. And it costs them nothing (but battery power) to listen. The only disappointment is that people do not seem to be using their phones much to listen to the radio, according to Ofcom data (see graph below):

Most industries would kill to achieve the kind of penetration levels that FM radio has already achieved in the UK with mobile handsets. Yet the commercial radio industry in the UK, unlike in the US, appears to see little advantage to directing listeners to the mobile phone platform. Why?

Maybe because:
• RAJAR, the radio audience metric, does not publish listening data separately for the mobile phone platform in its quarterly survey [confusingly, it presently seems to lump respondents’ reported mobile phone listening to live radio into its ‘digital unspecified’ platform category, even though FM radio received via mobiles is, in fact, analogue]
• DAB is the platform of choice for the commercial radio industry because it (like the BBC) has invested so heavily over a decade in building its expensive infrastructure, so why persuade listeners to go elsewhere? The questions to be asked are: What is your radio company primarily – a content provider or a platform operator? Are ‘hours listened via DAB’ really more important to you than ‘TOTAL hours listened’?
• DAB (like FM) restricts consumers’ listening to BBC and UK commercial radio stations, whereas mobile devices increasingly offer a much wider choice of content (not on FM, but via G3 or broadband). So there is reluctance to promote a mobile platform that could potentially attract a previously loyal listener to, say,

As a result, a drive to encourage FM radio listening on mobile phones does not figure in UK commercial radio’s overall strategy, even though it might help maintain the sector’s audiences and revenues (admittedly, some companies such as Global Radio and Absolute Radio have individual initiatives that do push the point). You cannot help but think that opportunities are being lost here because:
• All the industry’s platform eggs have been placed in the DAB basket
• The DAB campaign in the UK seeks to persuade consumers to PURCHASE a new radio receiver, whereas almost everyone already owns a mobile phone, so a campaign to persuade consumers to use its FM radio will involve no additional purchase
• The UK industry wants to maintain its ‘walled garden’ that shields consumers from experiencing non-BBC/non-UK commercial radio content, thus maintaining the cosy content duopoly.

A parallel might be Tesco not wanting to tell customers about its ‘Metro’ stores within petrol stations because it was worried that they might spend their disposable income on forecourt petrol rather than Tesco items. That would be crazy. Tesco simply wants consumers to be offered as many opportunities as possible to buy Tesco goods, wherever that opportunity might arise.

The incongruity is that the US radio industry desperately wants to be at a place where we, in the UK, already are (lots of mobile phones incorporating FM radio). Yet, what are we ourselves doing to promote FM radio listening on mobile phones? Almost nothing.

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