Friday, 9 July 2010

Digital radio switchover: talk is cheap, action will never happen

Politics is the art of flip-flop policymaking (and justifying it convincingly). This is evident in the new UK government’s first statement about DAB radio and digital radio switchover, published this week. What is its new policy? Well, there is no new policy. The Conservatives are simply continuing the previous Labour government’s ill-advised determination to foist digital radio switchover on an increasingly resistant public. A critic might even be so bold as to say of new Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt:

“The Government have ducked sorting out digital radio switchover…. 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.”

But wait! In fact, these were the words of Jeremy Hunt himself, in April 2010, criticising his predecessor, Ben Bradshaw, during the previous Labour government. Now that the boot is on the Right foot, Hunt seems to have simply dusted off the Labour policy he had previously lambasted, crossed out Bradshaw’s name and written in his own instead.

In his same speech to the House of Commons, Hunt had been scathing about the digital radio switchover clause in the Digital Economy Bill:

“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 [….] 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.”

That was ‘opposition’ Hunt then. Three months later, ‘government’ Hunt appears to see nothing problematic with the digital radio switchover clause. Indeed, the new government has committed itself to exactly the same fantastical strategy for DAB radio as the old government:

• digital radio listening will somehow reach 50% of the total by 2012
• someone somewhere will pay to upgrade the DAB transmission system to render it as robust as FM
• someone somewhere will launch lots of fab new digital radio stations
• consumers will somehow be persuaded to replace all six or more of their household’s radios with new DAB ones
• analogue radio transmitters will somehow be switched off in 2015
• all cars will somehow be fitted with DAB radios by 2015
• mobile phones and portable devices will somehow all suddenly include DAB, rather than FM, radio receivers.

All these objectives always had been, and still are, pure fantasy. None, and I literally mean ‘none’, of the available evidence and data demonstrate that these things will happen. Definitely not by 2012, certainly not by 2015, and probably never.

A year ago, Hunt was very clear in marking out his party’s strategy for digital radio as more realistic than the ruling Labour government’s:

“I think the most important thing is not something the government can do, but something the industry can do is, which is to develop new services on digital platforms that actually mean there is a real consumer benefit to DAB. At the moment, the benefits are marginal. I mean, there are some benefits in terms of quality, but your batteries get used up a lot more quickly, the reception is a lot more flaky, and a lot of the things that make digital switchover attractive on TV don’t apply to radio in the same way. So I think the industry needs to do a lot more to make it in consumers’ interests to have that switchover…..

We have also got to think about consumer anger. Consumers are people that the radio sector needs. It’s going through a very tough patch. We don’t want to switch off listeners by suddenly saying that we are not going to – that we are going to force you to have a new radio, and there’s a real danger, if we do that, that they might start listening to their iPods and their CD players instead. … At the moment, we seem to be getting into this mindset where we want to force it on the public, even though the public can’t really see what the benefits are.”

So, between then and now, who is it that has convinced Hunt to backtrack and instead to endorse the status quo? The civil servants in his Department who hitched their wagon to the ‘DAB is the future’ train too long ago to let go now? The Ofcom radio staff who were appointed years ago on the strength of their promise to deliver digital radio switchover? The commercial lobbyists who still fantasise about the huge profits to be made (for Britain!) from global exports of their European DAB technology? All of them are nothing more than dreamers.

At the same time, many of these same parties are already distancing themselves from responsibility for DAB so as to save their own skins once DAB’s ‘fall from grace’ inevitably arrives:

• the government is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the public’s take-up
• the regulator is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the radio industry’s commitment
• the commercial radio industry is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the BBC paying
• the BBC is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon its audiences
• the BBC Trust is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the commercial radio sector’s commitment.

For years now, the stakeholders assembled around the table in those endless DAB committee meetings have been occupied identifying DAB’s problems yet, at the same time, every one of them has expected somebody somewhere else to fix them. But there is no sugar daddy out there. There is no cavalry about to ride over the horizon. It is you stakeholders who created such a mess of DAB and either you must fix it….. or throw in the towel.

This week’s announcement about digital radio switchover demonstrated that the new government does not have the guts to do what many, including the House of Lords Communications Committee chaired by Lord Fowler, had asked of them. To commission an objective analysis of why DAB was introduced in the first place, how close we really are to digital switchover, whether we will ever get there, what the costs have been to the radio sector to date, and to evaluate whether it is still worth pursuing these objectives thirty years after the DAB technology was invented.

Instead, the government has decreed that the present DAB unreality will continue … probably until one of these stakeholders eventually is forced by circumstance to kick the entire digital radio switchover issue into the long grass. In the meantime, the poor consumer is still on the end of misleading campaigns to persuade them that they will need to buy new DAB radios (which are mostly British), throw out their old radios (which are mostly foreign) and somehow get used to the sub-standard quality of DAB radio reception that most of us experience. No wonder they are asking in increasing numbers: ‘What was wrong with FM?’ And the correct answer is: ‘Nothing at all’.

This week’s government statement by Ed Vaizey, the new Culture Minister, was so woolly and vague that the media were able to write it up from wholly contradictory viewpoints.

“Government abandons 2015 target date for switching radio to digital signal,” said the Bloomberg News headline.

“Radio industry welcomes Tory backing for digital switchover in 2015”, said The Guardian headline.

Those two headlines cannot both be true. All the government has done this week is leave everyone more confused than ever. So why did it bother saying anything at all? A critic of Ed Vaizey’s announcement might be moved to say:

“We have got to be concerned that people will be ready before any switchover takes place and that there won’t be literally millions of analogue radios which suddenly become redundant. As you know, the government has set a provisional target date of 2015 and we are sceptical about whether that target can actually be met.”

But wait! In fact, those were the words of Ed Vaizey himself, in March 2010, criticising the then Labour government’s digital switchover plans.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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