Thursday, 15 July 2010

Ofcom’s DAB radio strategy: busy doing nothing, trying to find lots of things not to do

In June 2010, the government published its flimsy 5-page response to the House of Lords Communications Committee’s critical 279-page report on digital switchover that had been unveiled three months earlier. The response was a disappointing document that dismissed with little more than one sentence each of the Committee’s carefully worded recommendations, deduced after having considered hours and volumes of evidence.

One of the Communications Committee’s most forceful recommendations, in Paragraph 107, had concerned the necessary improvements to DAB reception:

“Given the importance for the Government’s plans for digital switchover of universal reception of the BBC’s national stations, it is essential that a firm and unambiguous plan and funding for the completion of build-out of the BBC’s national multiplex is put in place as soon as possible.”

The government’s feeble response to this issue was:

“In order to agree a plan for DAB coverage build-out, so that it can ultimately meet the current levels of FM coverage, Ofcom have been asked to form a Coverage and Spectrum Planning Group to make recommendation on the following:
• the current coverage of national and local radio on FM;
• changes to the current multiplex structure and frequency allocation; and
• what new infrastructure is needed so that DAB can match FM.
Ofcom are expected to present their recommendation to Government in Spring 2011.”

Surely it does not need yet another government committee to look into DAB? Had not these issues already been considered by the Digital Radio Working Group two years ago? By Digital Britain a year ago? By Ofcom? By anybody during the last decade of DAB underachievement?

Then I recalled a speech made by Ofcom Director of Radio, Peter Davies, to the Radio Festival in July 2008, in which he had set out his imminent workplan on the DAB issue:

"Increased coverage of DAB will be absolutely essential if it is ever to become a full replacement for FM for most services…… That brings us to the tricky part – defining what existing coverage is and how we improve it. This is still work in progress but we are approaching it in three stages. Firstly, we need to define what existing FM coverage is. That’s not nearly as simple as it might sound. Radio is not like television where you stick an aerial on the roof and you get reception or you don’t. Radio is used in every room in the house, usually with a portable aerial. It’s used outdoors on a wide variety of devices and it’s listened to in cars. So we need to look at geographic coverage as well as population coverage, and we need to look at indoor coverage in different parts of the house. FM coverage gradually fades as you move around, so we need to decide how strong the signal needs to be to be usable. And, surprisingly, this work has never really been done in any kind of consistent manner for the UK as a whole, so it has taken a little while to agree a framework and calculate the numbers.

Having done that, we then have to do the same for existing DAB coverage. Now DAB has all the same issues as FM, but it also has different characteristics. It doesn’t fade in the same way – you either get it or you don’t – so we need a different set of definitions here. Once we have defined what existing DAB coverage is, we then have to work out what it would take to get existing DAB coverage up to the level of existing FM coverage. Now, we have already done a lot of work on this, and certainly enough to inform the interim report, and the whole thing will be finalised in time for the [government’s] Digital Radio Working Group final report later this year.”

This 2008 workplan seems to comprise precisely the same tasks that the government has just told Ofcom to start and complete by Spring 2011. So what happened? Was this work not done by late 2008, as Davies had promised? And if not, why not?

Improvements to DAB reception were considered a critical issue for consumer take-up of DAB radio … in 2008. Now, in 2010, they are probably the main factor likely to sound the death knell of DAB as a mass market consumer platform. So are we to assume that, in the intervening two years, work on this essential issue was never done, or was not completed, by Ofcom?

Why should consumers consider DAB radio to be anything other than a disaster if even our public servants appear to be busy doing little to fix the acute problems with DAB reception that the public has been rightly complaining about for years?


Anonymous said...

Interesting that they're so keen to quantify FM coverage. If they find little pockets without coverage, will they say "phew - we don't have to provide DAB there either!"?

Why don't they skip that expensive "FM coverage survey", and put the money saved into building a DAB tx network that delivers indoor coverage to a defined proportion of the UK population (e.g. 98.5%).

Or just be honest and say "we'll get pretty close, and fix further problems in the years ahead" - because, like it or not, that's what _will_ happen. They were still adding new tx sites for national FM 30 years after launch

With DAB, extra tx sites is "just" about cost - there's no scarcity of spectrum issue when you're adding more tx sites to an existing Single Frequency Network.


Anonymous said...

Am I alone in realising that Vaizey has deliberately misled the public? In his Digital Radio Action plan, he boldly claims that

"Listening to digital radio accounts for 24 per cent of all radio listening in the UK"

and yet in the Ofcom report - 21st July 2010 - , commissioned by him, they state that

" just under a quarter (24%) of all radio listening hours were to services delivered over a digital distribution platform"

Note the difference? You only get 24% of people listening to digital radio if you include those using FreeView, FreeSat and the Internet.

But wait, it gets worse. You and I were under the impression, given by Vaizey, that one of the criteria for switching off mainstream FM channels was when 50% of the populus was listening on DAB radios. Not so. Now, he's decided to include those listening via FreeView, FreeSat and the Internet. Talk about moving the goalposts.


Anonymous said...

@ Roger

The 50% test has always applied to all digital radio platforms added together, not just DAB.

The last Labour Government defined "digital radio" as DAB, DTV & the internet.

There's no moving of goalposts.


DP said...

Ofcom’s first annual Digital Progress Report repeats RAJAR (and Digital UK), with fancier graphics. Presented as “all radio listening” without even noting the known limitations:

RAJARs is for subscribers, larger Commercial and the BBC. Approximately 320 stations, and not including about 100 smaller Commercial stations, or Community, Student, Hospital, (Pirate) and Internet-Only--totaling about 1,000 UK stations. Not including the rest of the world. While RAJARs allows write-ins for these non-subscribing stations, rather than the subscriber cards and stickers--and credits them with about 2% of listening--their focus on subscribers throughout their process ensures under-reporting of non-subscribers.

RAJARs is live listening only. RAJAR’s separate MIDAS study estimates additional listening for on-demand, podcasts, and personal tracklist services--all by Internet--equals Internet live listening.

RAJARs platform choices for “How” listening--AM/FM Radio, DAB Digital Radio, Digital TV, or The Internet--credits FM listening on DAB/FM radios to DAB! And, does not include fast-growing Mobile.

So, DAB listening is over-reported, and Internet listening is under-reported by not including:
The many non-subscribing stations in the UK (and the Rest of the World), with relatively higher Internet listening and relatively lower DAB listening.
On-demand (listen-later and archive), podcasts, and personal tracklist services--which are all Internet.
Internet listening on DAB/FM/Internet radios credited to DAB, and some Internet listening on Mobile.

A more accurate comparison requires:

Reducing the DAB ~15% for FM (and Internet) listening on DAB Radios. Perhaps 1/3 to 1/2 (certainly should be studied) equals ~8-10% actual, total DAB listening.

Increasing the Internet ~3% for non-subscribers, non-live listening, and for other platforms under reported and inaccurately reported. Doubling the ~3% for on-demand, podcasts, and personal tracklists equals ~6%. Perhaps doubling for under-reported non-subscribers and inaccurately reported Internet platform equals ~9-12% actual, total Internet listening.

It seems very likely that total Internet radio listening is now about equal to total DAB radio listening—both ~8-10%. And, Internet radio listening is growing faster, driven by increased broadband, Wi-Fi, and mobile access--and devices and applications to use that access. And, Internet is growing across a broader range of ages and a broader range of geography.

DP said...

Noting Ofcom’s Digital Progress Report details.

1.6 We estimate that there are between 70-80 million radio sets in homes (in the form of portables, hi-fis or clock radios) and a further 34 million sets installed in cars and commercial vehicles. The total universe of these sets is therefore estimated to be at least 104 – 114 million.
PCs, and some mobile handsets.

“Based on our consumer research, additional radio devices in the market could add a further 34m devices to the figures set out in the table above. This includes portable devices such as mobile phones, MP3 and personal music players,”

The Digital Listening Projections are included, curving upward, without the actual low ramp showing the increasing, all-but-impossible shortfall—which you have featured. Ofcom only comments generously on the most recent point and ignores the clear trend:
“By Q1 2010 digital platforms had gained a 24% share of all radio listening hours according to the RAJAR listening survey, which is broadly in line with the ‘organic growth’ outlined on the forecast chart.”

“Each has different features, offering consumers a range of options.
DAB offers the combination of being free-to-receive and portable, like analogue radio, but it requires a specific receiver.” Be purchased, for every location. And, reception is limited, and will never be ubiquitous. And, sound quality is limited, and will never improve significantly. And, live-only, without on-demand. And, selection is local, and inherently limited.

“Through an internet device, such as a computer, WiFi radio or smart phone, listeners have access to wide range of audio services including radio content originating from outside the UK as well as archive content. However such services generally require a paid-for broadband or 3G connection.”
Which is already available, paid-for, in-place

Internet access: Broadband internet access is available to 99% of the country, while 3G services are available to 87%.
DAB coverage: In July 2010 the BBC estimated that its national DAB network currently provided indoor coverage to around 85% of UK homes.