Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Digital radio switchover: legislation is “virtually meaningless,” says Shadow Culture Secretary

House of Commons
6 April 2010 @ 1627
Digital Economy Bill, Second Reading [excerpts]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The switchover to digital radio has probably aroused more interest than any other issue in the Bill except that of unlawful file sharing. The target date of 2015, set by the Government, is an incentive not an ultimatum. We have made it clear that a decision on digital switchover will not be made until national DAB coverage is comparable to that of FM, until local DAB reaches 90 per cent of the population and all major roads and until 50 per cent of listening is through digital means. Once all those criteria have been satisfied, there will be at least two years before switchover takes place, at which point we expect coverage and listening to reach nearly universal levels — that is, about 98.5 per cent judged by television reach.

[…]

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Conservative): The Government have ducked sorting out digital radio switchover, which the Secretary of State has just talked about. They are giving Ministers the power to switch over in 2015, yes, but without taking any of the difficult measures necessary to make it practical or possible.

[…]

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Conservative): Is my hon. Friend content with clause 31, on the digital switchover? It is estimated that the costs to the consumer will be £800 million, and there is no sign of manufacturers of DAB radios producing cheap radios, no estimate of the cost of throwing away millions of existing FM sets, no sign that the motor car industry is going to come up with the goods — [interruption]. A Labour Back Bencher says, “Yes there is,” but I have read all the papers and although there are one or two pious hopes, there is nothing more than that. This will be extremely expensive, and the 2015 deadline is unattainable. Is my hon. Friend content, therefore, or will we make some further promises?

Mr. Hunt: I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, because I think that clause is so weak that it is virtually meaningless, as it gives the Secretary of State the power to mandate switchover in 2015 but the Government have not taken the difficult steps that would have made that possible, such as ensuring that the car industry installs digital radios as standard, as my hon. Friend suggests, and that there is proper reception on all roads and highways. As a result, a lot of people are very concerned that 110 million analogue radios will have to be junked in 2015. In particular, I would have liked the Government to find out whether we could move from DAB to the DAB+ technology, which most people think will be far more effective. If they had done that, this measure would not threaten smaller local radio stations.

Mr. SiĆ“n Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Labour) rose —

Mr. Hunt: I will give way to the former Minister with responsibility for creative industries, and then I will make some progress.

Mr. Simon: Given the hon. Gentleman’s desire to move to DAB+, what does he suggest the 8 million people in this country who have bought very expensive DAB radios should do?

Mr.Hunt: First, let me say that when the hon. Gentleman stepped down as Minister for the creative industries, it was a great shame that he was not replaced. It would have helped in the sensible framing of the Bill if we had had a Minister with that responsibility now, but there is none. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is simply this: when we migrate from one technology to another — whether analogue to DAB, or DAB to DAB+ — we need some kind of help scheme, as we have with TV digital switchover, but there is no mention of a help scheme in this Bill. That serves to highlight why the Government have ducked the important decisions.

[…]

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (Liberal Democrat): Notwithstanding the many concerns that have been raised over the past few months about the move from analogue to digital radio, broadly speaking there is now consensus about that measure. The Secretary of State has laid down clear criteria that have to be met on listenership and coverage before the two-year starting pistol can be fired. Of course, there have been concerns. For example, some people thought that FM would be dropped, but we know that it will not be dropped; indeed, FM could become a new vibrant platform for local and micro-local radio stations and given more power. Possibly, Ofcom could start to give them even longer licences. With all the conditions that have been inserted, that is another exciting provision that we should acknowledge and accept so that everyone can have the real benefits of the digital radio era, in terms of greater interactivity and so on. The Government have done a disservice by failing to promote the real benefits of digital radio as effectively as they could. It is not surprising that the Committee in their lordships’ House castigated the Government for their failure. The industry could have done more. It is a pity that it has taken so long for FM to be included in all the DAB radios now on sale. It is only very recently that we have heard of the launch of the mechanism that will ensure people can have a single tuner covering DAB and FM — a single EPG, or electronic programme guide. That is welcome, but the work could have been done sooner.

[…]

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Conservative): I now turn to DAB radio. Commercial radio and the BBC have invested huge amounts in moving to DAB, and commercial radio in particular is now in real economic difficulties, as the report that my Select Committee — the Culture, Media and Sport Committee — issued this morning explains. There is no doubt that one burden on it is having to broadcast in analogue and digital simultaneously, and it would provide some help if it had a firm pathway to a future in which it need only broadcast in DAB. I believe that the 2015 date, which I know is not in the Bill, is unrealistic. It is sensible to set a date, but most people believe that that is probably too ambitious, because of the single problem of car radios. Yes, some manufacturers are beginning to fit DAB radios in cars, but there is a huge reservoir of cars that will not have them for a very long time. We must get to a point at which an in-car radio can easily be converted to DAB. The device that is on the market at the moment, which I have in my car, has so many wires, antennae and bits of equipment that I do not believe it will be taken up with great enthusiasm.

[…]

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Labour): I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) in his analysis of the digital radio switchover. Clearly the industry, in the main, supports digital switchover, but of course a switchover to DAB radio by 2015 is wholly impractical and out of the question because that is too soon. It will be much more difficult to switch over to digital radio than it was to switch over to digital TV, because that process was helped by the mass subscription to Sky and by the development of Freeserve. Such provision does not exist in respect of radio, because there are 120 million radios in this country and sales of digital radio have not taken off. Digital radio is quite expensive and if we make it compulsory, that will be a heavy tax on the consumer. One of the lower prices for a digital radio is about £85, and that price has increased with devaluation. So this would be a heavy burden to impose on the consumer, and if we require switchover, it would leave about 120 stations still on FM and locked out in the cold. We do not have to switch over at this speed and we do not have to switch over to DAB because we could move to DAB+, which would allow both services to be run concurrently. I am worried about the digital switchover for radio, because the crucial factor here is car radios, for which the technology is never sold effectively. Like the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), my experience with DAB in the car has been totally unsatisfactory. Not only is it messy, but it is difficult to pick up a station, and the signal cuts in and out and fades away, so one is constantly having to switch back to FM. Digital car radio sales are crucial, but such sales have been low and there is no sign of their taking off. Only 1 per cent of cars are fitted with a digital radio, and until there is a mass fitting of digital car radios we shall not be able to have an effective switch-off. I am worried about that provision.

[…]

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Labour): Two great debates on this Bill, with commercial interests on both sides, have been referred to tonight. I will not rehearse all the arguments, but one of the debates is on digital radio. The Opposition Front-Bench team seems to be saying that it opposes the current model the Government are suggesting. The Opposition spokesman suggested that he was now in favour of DAB+. It is interesting that hundreds of radio stations listened to by our constituents throughout the land, such as Minster FM, are being offered no digital future whatever in this Bill. What they are being offered, at best, is a place on a joint FM and digital electronic programme guide that is still being developed, and even if they get on that device, they will still not have all the advantages of potential and so forth, and they will be very much second-class stations. Under the Bill as currently drafted, that is the future. Helpful amendments were tabled by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords suggesting that before any switchover there should be full consideration of all local and community stations. I will re-table those amendments today; I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will support them, and that they might tempt the Conservative Front Bench, too, in the negotiations for the wash-up. There is another side to the debate, to do with the BBC and some other digital radio interests. This reinforces the point that we should still have a full Committee stage — and if we cannot have that, we should pass the Bill on to our successors.

[debate ended 10pm]

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