Friday, 5 February 2010

Criteria and a date for digital radio switchover: debated in the House of Lords

The news that the government’s proposed ‘digital radio switchover’ will no longer involve ‘FM switch-off’ was first reported in this blog in June 2009, which stated:

“In the 13-page radio section of the Digital Britain Final Report published yesterday, there was not one mention of the word ‘switchover’ in the context of ‘digital radio switchover’. Neither was there a single mention of the word ‘switch-off’, as in ‘FM radio switch-off’. Throughout the document’s radio section, the new buzz phrase is ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, meaning a drive to make DAB radio better and improve its consumer take-up. In Digital Britain, the notion of switching off FM radio broadcasting, notably for local stations, has been buried for good.”

However, between June 2009 and now, this issue – that the government will NOT switch off FM broadcasting – has been clouded by continuing statements from some radio lobbyists and in many media outlets which imply that FM radios will no longer work after switchover. If I were cynical, I might think the motivation is to panic citizens into buying DAB radios – a consumer response which would itself help the industry reach the criteria necessary for ‘switchover’ to happen.

As for those criteria, and the government’s favoured switchover date of 2015, I have consistently predicted that the criteria stand absolutely no chance of being reached by 2015. For a long time, the government and large parts of the radio industry loyally stuck with these targets, imagining that somehow, if you say something frequently enough in public, it will come to pass of its own accord. However, in recent months, with 2015 rapidly approaching, there has been a sudden U-turn. Until then, the radio industry had been vociferous in demanding the government fix a ‘switchover’ date as early as possible. Now, suddenly, a date – any date – is no longer deemed desirable.

A blog entry here last month noted that neither the criteria, nor the 2015 date for ‘switchover’, are mentioned anywhere in the Digital Economy Bill:

“Figures. Numbers. Dates. Criteria. This kind of factual evidence or hard data might obstruct a future decision to force consumers to switch to DAB radio.

……… the criteria and the switchover date that had been agreed upon by stakeholders, over two years of deliberations, have now quietly been relegated to oblivion.

When would digital radio switchover have happened if the agreed criteria had been implemented in law? Probably never.

When will digital radio switchover happen now? Whenever those in power want it to.”

A debate on Wednesday night in the House of Lords (see below) considered several amendments to the Digital Economy Bill which would have put specific criteria back onto the legislative table and would have ensured that all radio stations (large and small, BBC and commercial) are given an opportunity to migrate from analogue to DAB transmission. These amendments were eventually withdrawn, after the government Minister offered vague assurances that FM would not be switched off “for the foreseeable future”.

As a result, on paper, if the Digital Economy Bill is ever legislated, ‘digital radio switchover’ (which no longer involves FM switch-off) can be made to happen whenever and however the government wants it to.

In practice, digital radio switchover will inevitably never happen. Consumers appear increasingly disinterested in DAB radio. Besides, we have yet to hear one radio station owner promise they will turn off their analogue transmitters forever and, in that instant, cut their listenership by half just because the other half are thought to be listening via a combination of DAB, digital TV and the internet. You would have to be mad to do that. And, yes, the radio industry could be considered ‘crazy’ for continuing to go along with this bizarre notion that it is prepared to cut off its own nose to spite its face.

Eventually, it will end in tears.

Amendments 238, 239 & 241
Moved by Lord Clement-Jones

238: Clause 30, page 33, line 19, at end insert —
“(2A) The Secretary of State may not nominate a date for switchover —
(a) unless it can be established that all local commercial radio stations will have the opportunity to move to digital audio broadcasting,
(b) until the proportion of homes in each of the four nations of the UK able to receive —
        (i) national BBC services,
        (ii) national commercial radio services,
        (iii) local BBC services, and
        (iv) local commercial radio services,
via digital audio broadcasting is equal to the proportion able to receive them via analogue broadcasting,
(c) until digital audio broadcasting accounts for at least 67 per cent of all radio listening, and
(d) until digital audio broadcasting receivers are installed in 50 per cent of private and commercial vehicles.”

239: Page 33, leave out line 21 and insert —
"( ) must ensure that all commercial and BBC radio services broadcasting in the UK have the opportunity to switchover on the same date,"

241: Page 34, line 1, leave out "2" and insert "4"

Lord Clement-Jones: In moving Amendment 238, I shall speak to Amendment 239 and 241. It is a wonderful thing to make one’s debut at 8.30 pm. I will try to do it with some brio. This amendment is designed for two particular purposes: not only to explore some of the detail of this clause, which seeks to implement a very important part of the Bill, but to test the coherence of the Government’s policies and objectives in this respect. On these Benches we recognise many of the benefits of moving from analogue to digital; of course we do. However, we believe the Government have been fundamentally poor in the way in which they have communicated their objectives and in the way in which they described both those and the processes involved in switching over. We are particularly concerned about the impact on local FM radio and what one might call ultra-local radio in that respect. A great deal of reassurance is needed about the future of FM. It is not just purely about freeing up space on the analogue spectrum for FM by migration from analogue to digital. The Government need to explain other aspects too. Why are we adopting DAB rather than DAB+, which would allow a much more local feel to our radio experience and enable many more ultra-local radio stations to migrate? The Government also need to explain — the Minister has made an attempt to do so — why the target of 2015 has been set. There are other details involved. One of the great forms of reassurance that the Government have tried to give to ultra-local radio FM stations is this notion of a common electronic programme guide. That is a great idea, but what is its practicality? What timescale is envisaged? The Government need to deliver much more clarity in this respect and other aspects. Will there be adequate supplies of radios that enable listeners to tune in to both FM and digital radio? It is fairly basic: will the domestic consumer be able to have access to those, or will most manufacturers switch over to pure digital? The availability of digital car radios is a particular concern. I shall illustrate where I believe there is some incoherence in this regard. It is almost as if two separate hands wrote Chapter 3b of the White Paper. That chapter is headed “Radio: Going Digital”. Paragraph 20 of that chapter states: “However, it has always been our intention that the ultra-local services which remain on FM after the Digital Radio Upgrade should only do so temporarily”. Later on, the paper — I leave the Minister to find his own copy — is written in very different terms. It talks about a much longer-term future for FM. Which is it? Will FM be a permanent or temporary part of the radio landscape? These things need sorting out as part of the Bill. Even if you talk to those intimately involved in the digital switchover, you will not get a precise answer about whether FM is here for the long term. As I understand it, technically, ultra-local radio is far better staying on FM almost in perpetuity, provided the two forms of spectrum can be afforded, and provided the receivers allow the receipt of both FM and digital for the foreseeable future. There is no particular reason why some of these ultra-local stations should indeed switch over. Why should they not be encouraged to stay where they are? That would seem to me to be a very coherent way of expressing government policy. However, of course, many operators want to have a broader canvas for their stations. That is entirely acceptable too. Where they wish to make that investment and have a broader scope for their radio services, that seems to be entirely right and proper. The Digital Britain White Paper talked about the triggers for the switchover to digital radio. In referring to those, the Minister said that it was not simply the case that half of all listening should be to digital and that the relevant date should not be set until national DAB coverage matches that of FM and 90 per cent of the population have access to local DAB. The clause we are discussing — this is what Amendment 238 is designed to do — does not refer to any of that. All it does is talk about the report submitted by Ofcom, to which the noble Lord, Lord Howard, referred. It does not give any direction to Ofcom. One assumes that Ofcom will refer to the government policy as set out in the White Paper, but there seems to be no duty on it to do that. That seems to constitute a gap in the provisions. We on these Benches believe that the Government need at least to give reasons why some conditions are not appropriate. We do not necessarily believe that all of these additional conditions are the right ones, but we do believe that certain of those should be additional to those stated, so that all local stations have digital migration pathways. Currently, more than 120 stations lack viable digital migration pathways. All categories of commercial and BBC stations should be treated equally, creating a level playing field going forward. The switchover date — 2015 — is based on an assessment of DAB listening rather than digital listening, which includes digital television and the internet, as this will replace FM and AM as radio’s broadcast backbone. People are listening more and more to radio over the internet. As regards the whole issue of vehicle reception, I think that less than 1 per cent of cars can receive digital signal at the moment. I think the Government estimate that only 10 per cent of vehicles will be able to receive it in 2015. We are trying to get a more coherent policy and a switchover that accords more to the reality of what listeners are doing. There is absolutely no point in the Government being so far ahead of what listeners want to do that they create a reaction against their own plans. Amendment 239 is another measure designed to test the earnest of the Government. The Government have rather arbitrarily decided that switchover should take place two years after notice of it is given. Amendment 241 seeks to change that. There are concerns about the speed of switchover. Amending the notice period would allow more time to solve the issues around consumer take-up, such as those involving vehicles, and would allow digital solutions to be provided for all stations which want them. A four-year period would be far more realistic in terms of recognising the considerable challenges involved in the digital switchover. Amendment 239 states that the Secretary of State “must ensure that all commercial and BBC radio services broadcasting in the UK have the opportunity to switchover on the same date”. That is another way of testing the Government’s proposals in this respect. Are they saying that, at the end of the day, all these stations need to switch to digital, or are they saying that FM has a future in the long term? What is the purpose behind the switchover? It seems to me that the Government have not expressed their intentions very clearly. I hope that this is an opportunity for them to do so. I beg to move.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, Amendment 238 has been put eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and with all the promised brio. However, he has set in that amendment probably rather an ambitious goal. Some may say that it is too ambitious. It may, of course, have the impact of delaying the switchover date from the much bandied-about year of 2015. However, as we heard from the Minister earlier, that is not a precise date. The amendment may also effectively force something of a reappraisal of how digital radio is rolled out between now and switchover. But, that said, I believe that neither of those consequences would be to the detriment of the well-being of the radio industry. The noble Lord referred to Ofcom. In order to make switchover manageable and help local stations remain viable in these challenging economic times, Ofcom has proposed a series of defined areas within which stations in the same commercial family will have more flexibility to share resources and locations. As your Lordships will know, that has been welcomed as a helpful step by many of the large and small commercial stations. Nevertheless, it throws up anomalies, especially where radio groups would be barred from broadcasting to some of their network from locations that are actually far closer to their listeners than those from which they are allowed to broadcast. I say this not to criticise Ofcom’s sterling efforts in coming up with solutions to try to make life easier for these vital local stations. The regulator is trying to be flexible and responsive in a rapidly changing arena. Yet that is precisely the point. It is almost as if, at the moment, we are rushing towards a finishing line when the course has not even yet been chalked out. This amendment helpfully acknowledges that the route to an appropriate digital platform is not yet entirely clear, especially for many smaller stations. I have concerns over the specific proposal that sets a target of two-thirds of listening on DAB before switchover simply because it does not quite recognise the mixed radio economy that we are moving towards, to which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred. If a growing proportion of us are listening to radio via our computers, mobile phones and digital TV sets, with only a small remnant still listening on analogue, it would be unfortunate if the wording of primary legislation made it such that we could not set a switchover date just because DAB was specified as the only non-analogue platform. But, with those reservations, on the whole I support Amendment 238.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I will briefly add my support for these amendments. There clearly has to be a rethink on this whole area. There are so many different interests and people who have been hoping and planning. At Second Reading, I remember my enthusiasm for immediate digital switchover as far as radio was concerned. It would be a splendid way for me to be able to enjoy my journeys up and down to Warwickshire without having to fiddle around and change the frequency on the radio, which is presumably a fairly dangerous practice anyhow. So, although one may not agree with every word, this points out to the Government that there is going to have to be a more up-to-date assessment of where we are and how quickly, if at all, we are going to reach the desired goal of switchover and meet the needs of local radio stations, particularly the commercial ones.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, the proposed amendment inserts specific switchover criteria into the Bill which must be satisfied before the Secretary of State can nominate a date for switchover. We agree that it is important for the Government to consider a wide range of issues and views before setting a date for digital switchover. We seem to be referring to 2015 as though we have set a date. I reiterate that that is a target. As with TV switchover, the announcement of a target date is essential in uniting the industry in creating the impetus to ensure that progress towards switchover conditions is made. For example, within six months of 2015 being published in the White Paper, progress with car manufacturers had advanced further than in the previous six years. We still believe that 2015 is an achievable deadline and the certainty of a timeframe is in the best interests of listeners and the industry as a whole. However, I stress that it is still a target. We expect broadcasters and network operators to work towards that deadline but a final date will only be set when progress measured against consumer-led criteria is clearly on target. We do not believe it is appropriate to insert the level of detail proposed by this amendment into legislation as it would fail to grant sufficient flexibility to address the inevitable changes in the market over the next five years. As this amendment raises a number of themes, I will take each of the issues raised in turn. It was an omnibus address delivered with brilliant brio. First, the proposed amendment requires a DAB network large enough to accommodate all commercial radio stations before a switchover date is nominated. We believe that this is the right ambition, but impractical in the short term. With over 50 BBC services, nearly 350 commercial stations, and 200 licensed community stations, the current DAB infrastructure cannot support a wholesale move to digital. We believe a mixed landscape of FM and DAB, as set out in the Digital Britain White Paper, is a better solution. It will allow small commercial stations and community radio stations to remain on FM, which was a point of concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. In the case of community radio stations, it will allow for more services to be launched. On the question of whether FM is temporary or permanent, FM is the right technology for community and small local radio stations for the foreseeable future, following switchover.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, it is permanent.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I feel I am being lured into saying “never say never” or “never say ever”. We certainly see it for the foreseeable future following switchover. That is pretty generous. We are trying to reassure the noble Lord. It is the right technology for community and small local radio stations. We cannot predict exactly how technology will develop for ever and ever, but we are saying “for the foreseeable future, following switchover”. That is a pretty good guarantee. Secondly, this amendment would require DAB networks in the UK to reach the same number of households as analogue. Again, we agree with the principle and we are working with the industry to secure this outcome as quickly as is feasible. However, the definition of analogue coverage is too broad, encompassing long wave, medium wave and FM. It also provides no clarity as to whether it is a high-quality stereo signal or a low-quality mono signal. This amendment would result in multiplex operators and broadcasters bearing the full cost of a near universal DAB network for the longest possible time. Thirdly, the amendment proposes to require that 67 per cent of all radio listening be to DAB before a switchover date can be set. We agree that the digital radio switchover should be market-led and dependent on the take-up and usage of digital radio. However, this criterion places too great an emphasis on DAB over other digital technologies. The issue is not whether listeners choose to consume radio via DAB, the internet or digital TV, but the extent to which they have access to digital radio technology and are using it. Also required in this amendment is that DAB receivers are installed in 50 per cent of private and commercial vehicles. We believe there would be significant challenges in measuring success against such a criterion. In addition, such a legal requirement would fail to take account of the adoption of in-car radio converters or future technological developments. Just as we had the development of the Digibox in relation to enabling analogue TVs to carry on working, so it is obvious that we will see the price of in-car converters come down and that technology developed. All DAB radios include FM: that was another point that was raised. We are working with car manufacturers with the aim that, by 2013, all radios sold with vehicles will be digitally enabled. There are already devices on the market that will convert an FM car receiver so that it can receive DAB, and the market in this area is likely to grow considerably. It is huge: there are millions of analogue car radios. We are trying to cover all the areas of concern. Amendment 239 would also require that all commercial and BBC stations have the opportunity to switch over on the same date. It removes the flexibility granted to the Secretary of State to nominate different switchover dates for different services. Although it remains the Government’s intention that all services specified by the Secretary of State should switch over on the same date, flexibility is needed to ensure that the switchover can be delivered most appropriately for listeners. With TV, the gradual approach is working well, so we are making a plea here for flexibility. Amendments 241 would increase the minimum notice period from two to four years. We believe that this would unnecessarily extend the costs of dual transmission for broadcasters, and slow down the rollout of the DAB network. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about our motivation. Part of it is the most effective use of the spectrum; another part is to ensure that people are given the best possible service. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said she had to fiddle with the knob on her car radio. It is time that she updated it to one with RDS, which will automatically change the frequency for her as she drives along. I cannot guarantee her a government handout, but it is well worth it. The right reverend Prelate was concerned about local radio and defined areas, and made a number of interesting points. We will look carefully at his remarks in Hansard and write to him on the issue. We will make copies available to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, because these are points of common interest. I apologise for going on at length, but this is an important debate that encompasses a wide range of issues. I have tried to address all the points raised and understand the concerns, and I hope that, given my response, the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply, particularly since it was on the run: it was not obvious from the amendments how broad the debate was going to be. He has addressed almost all the issues, except the one that I raised about DAB+. I forgive him for that, although if he does have an answer —

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I do have an answer, but forgot to make a note of the question. The advantage of DAB+ over DAB is the greater capacity that it provides for services on the same frequency, allowing a digital multiplex to broadcast around 20 rather than 10 services, thereby giving more stations the opportunity to move to digital. However, we believe that the benefits of DAB+ are more than outweighed by the negative impact on existing DAB listeners. Only a very small fraction of the 10 million digital receivers that have been sold are capable of receiving DAB+, and any technology change would make these receivers effectively redundant. That would significantly delay the switchover timetable and increase the time during which broadcasters would bear the burden of dual transmission costs. Nevertheless, the Government have been clear about their intention to promote receivers that are capable of receiving DAB+ and other digital technologies that are used across Europe. This will protect receivers against any change of technology in the future. We are trying to take into account the concern in that area. I apologise if I put that over quickly, but it will be on the record.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that suite of answers to the various points raised. I also thank those who took part in the debate; the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. Not every jot and tittle of the amendment necessarily carries all the weight that it should. We are looking for pointers from the Government. Although some of the White Paper sets out the conditions and criteria, they are not in the Bill and there is uncertainty, albeit among a minority of radio operators. The future of FM has not been made clear. I take the words “foreseeable future” in these circumstances to mean semi-permanent. There is a fear that FM stations “left behind” on analogue will be second-class citizens who will not be there for long — they will be hustled across into digital — when actually, in terms of cost and reception, ultra-local radio is probably best left on FM. It may be that the Government wish to release that spectrum, have a fire sale and flog off FM to the highest bidder — I know not. The Government need to be crystal clear about those issues. The use of the “mixed landscape” wording by the Minister was very healthy; no wholesale move in the circumstances is healthy, as it has been described to us that digital will be a great advantage to the larger national radio stations but not to the smaller ones. I understand what the Minister was saying about the vehicle aspect. I hope that he is correct in saying that the ability to convert to digital by various gizmos, which will not cost the public an arm and a leg, will be increasingly possible. I think he mentioned the 2015 gate but I do not know what percentage of in-car use was associated with that. Clearly, there is some considerable optimism about the switch taking place within the next three or four years. That is ambitious. On two years versus four years, I cannot help reflecting that the two-year period is more, not for the listeners’ or the radio operators’ convenience, but for the Government’s convenience because they want a decision made and they want to be able to consider the future of FM after that. That is the impression given to date. In a sense, two years is a very aggressive period, once the notice has been given, in which to expect that migration to take place. That is the fear behind that short period. Basically it is for the Government’s convenience rather than for allowing things to take place in an orderly fashion. This has been a very useful debate. I thank the Minister for what he has said. Obviously, some reflection is required. We have all had an enormous amount of correspondence from radio operators and no doubt we shall reflect with them between now and Report about whether further tweaks are required to this part of the Bill. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 238 withdrawn.
Amendment 239 not moved.
Amendment 241 not moved.

[For the purpose of transparency, I was one of the parties invited to present evidence before the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications the morning of this debate.]

1 comment:

dpomic said...

A good snapshot view of the process.

The testimony sessions are another.