Friday, 19 February 2010

European commercial radio trade group says ‘no’ to universal FM switch-off date

At the start of its annual conference held in Brussels on 11/12 February 2010, the Association of European Radios [AER], the trade group representing 4,500+ European commercial radio stations (including RadioCentre members in the UK), issued the following press statement:

“AER considers that setting a date for the switch-off of analogue radio services is currently impossible. Indeed, the question of which kind of technology will be used should be solved first. Hence, broadcasting in FM and AM shall remain the primary means of transmission available for radios in all countries, with the possibility to simulcast in digital technology, until market developments enable a potential time-frame for general digitisation of radio. Transition to any digital broadcasting system should benefit from a long time-frame, unless there is industry agreement at national level to move at a faster rate.”

This statement followed on from a policy paper the Association had published a few days earlier, responding to the European Commission’s Radio Spectrum Policy Group plans for its draft Work Programme. The paper said, in part:

“It should be underlined that, in most of Europe, currently and for the foreseeable future, there is only one viable business model: free-to-air FM broadcasting on Band II. Thus, Band II is the frequency range between 87.5-108 MHz and only represents 20.5 MHz. Across Europe, nearly every single frequency is used in this bandwidth. Thanks to the broad receiver penetration and the very high usage by the listeners, this small bandwidth is very efficiently used. On-air or internet-based commercially-funded digital radio has indeed not yet achieved widespread take up across European territories. These two means of transmission will be part of the patchwork of transmission techniques for commercially-funded radios in the future, but it is hard to foresee when.

So no universal switch-off date for analogue broadcasting services can currently be envisaged and decision on standards to be used for digital radio broadcasting should be left to the industry on a country-by-country basis.

Radio’s audience is first and foremost local or regional. Moreover, spectrum is currently efficiently managed by European states and this should remain the case: national radio frequency landscapes and national radio broadcasting markets are different, with divergent plans for digitization, diverse social, cultural and historical characteristics and with distinct market structures and needs…..”

“Finally, AER would like to recall that European radios can only broadcast programmes free of charge to millions of European citizens, thanks to the revenues they collect by means of advertising. These revenues are decreasing all through Europe due to two factors: the shift towards internet-based advertising, and the recent financial crisis. For 2009, radio advertising market shares were forecast to decrease by 3 to 20% all across Europe, compared to 2008.

In some countries (e.g. France and the UK), a part of the revenues derived from the TV digital switchover was supposed to be allocated to the support of digitisation schemes for radio. This is no longer the case. In most countries, it is still unclear who will bear the costs of the digitisation process.

However, any shift towards digital radio broadcasting entails very long-lasting and burdensome investments. Nevertheless, some individual nations may wish to proceed with a move to greater digital broadcasting at a faster rate, as there will be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

So, any shift towards digital radio broadcasting will most likely require a very long process. Decision on the adequate time-frame should be left to each national industry: as a matter of principle, transition to any improved digital broadcasting system should benefit from a long time-frame, unless there is industry agreement to move at a faster rate.

It should also be recalled that commercially-funded radios are SMEs, and are in no position to compete for access to spectrum with other market players. So, market-based approaches to spectrum (such as service neutrality or secondary trading) should not be enforced in bands where commercially-funded radios broadcast or may broadcast.

To end up with, AER would like to recall that, in most of Europe, currently and for the foreseeable future, there is only one viable business model: free-to-air FM broadcasting on Band II; hence:

• no universal switch-off date for analogue broadcasting services can currently be envisaged
• now and for a foreseeable future, commercially-funded radios need guaranteed access to spectrum, in all bands described above. Besides, no further change to the GE 84 plan [the 1984 Geneva FM radio broadcast frequencies agreement] should be suggested, but the plan should be applied with consideration to the technological development (and its enlarged scope of possibilities) throughout the past 25 years
• any shift towards digital radio broadcasting should benefit from a long and adequate time-frame.”

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