Monday, 26 July 2010

DAB radio's slow consumer take-up: lessons not learnt from FM radio 50 years earlier

“Without a knowledge of your history, you cannot determine your destiny”
Misty In Roots, ‘Live At The Counter-Eurovision 1979’

Recent history can teach us important lessons. Efforts to turn dreams into reality come a lot easier if we learn from what has gone before us, what has gone right, and what has gone wrong. This is as true in radio as it is in any human endeavour.

Dr. Stephen Lax, Senior Lecturer in Communications Technology at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Communications Studies, has written an excellent paper entitled ‘A Vision For Radio: Engineering Solutions For Changing Audiences – From FM to DAB’. It was published in a recent anthology ‘Digital Radio In Europe’. The following are excerpts taken directly from Dr. Lax’s work and document what the radio industry should have learnt from the slow consumer take-up of FM radio half a century ago before it embarked upon DAB radio.

“The introduction of FM was itself no straightforward matter of replacing its AM forebear, and neither have innovations in radio technology in the half century that followed been unproblematic. It is in the context of this history that the emergence of DAB should be studied.

Like DAB, FM was widely claimed to offer a significant improvement in sound quality in comparison with the then universal AM modulation system. By the early 1940s, its technical superiority was established. One leading figure amongst US radio engineers, W.R.G. Baker, suggested in 1943 that FM was ‘so much better technically than the present regular broadcast system that it can’t fail of acceptance.’ Yet, despite such advantages, for several decades it did indeed fail to be accepted as a replacement for AM.
Following a UK launch in 1955, the BBC rolled out the FM service relatively quickly: by the end of 1959, most transmitters had been upgraded and 96.4% of the population was within range of the signals; but, even ten years later, when coverage was over 99%, the corporation noted that only one third of households had any form of FM receiver. A similarly slow rise in the popularity of FM continued in the US: although FM services had begun there on the VHF band some ten years earlier than in the UK, it was not until after 1979 that FM finally achieved a higher share of listening than AM.
[In 1974], [BBC director of engineering James] Redmond expressed puzzlement at the slow adoption of FM, even for fixed reception in the home. Despite its superior sound quality, he noted that ‘changeover has been slower than anticipated.’ …. [One] reason was the simulcasting of radio programmes on FM and on AM, rather than offering new programmes on the new service: listeners would only be able to hear on FM what their AM receivers already gave them.
This history serves as an illustration of how an apparently self-evidently superior technology pursued as a solution to a problem of audio quality did not automatically find favour with listeners, who […] were apparently prepared to put up with inferior sound and were less inclined to adopt FM while it offered little new programming or competition with television in the evening.
A mismatch is revealed between the broadcasters’ and engineers’ beliefs as to what was important to listeners, and the preferences and priorities of the vast majority of those listeners themselves.
[A group of audio enthusiasts] was contrasted [by Wireless World magazine in 1961] with ‘the most important group of all, the reasonable layman’ who simply wants decent reproduction at a reasonable cost, and it is this far larger group that no doubt hesitated to replace perfectly adequate AM receivers with the more expensive FM variety.
…. early promotion of DAB by the industry certainly used the phrase ‘CD-quality sound’, and placed this and related phrases at the top of the list of DAB’s advantages.
However, just as the slow pace of adoption of FM confounded broadcasters, for whom its advantages were self-evident, DAB too has failed to gain an enthusiastic embrace from the audience.
The exhortation ‘radio must go digital’ has been expressed repeatedly over the years: for example, by the Director General of Audio Visual Policy at the European Union’s Media programme, Spyros Papas, in 1998; by BBC Director of Radio, Jenny Abramsky, in 2003; and, more recently, in 2009 by French National Assembly member Patrice Martin-Lalande and, less surprisingly, by Quentin Howard of World DMB. For these commentators, the logic of this transition is self-evident and so needs little explanation, technical or otherwise, and none is offered – put simply, radio cannot remain an analogue technology when all other consumer technologies are digital. Yet, however compelling the logic might be from a technical point of view, the development of both FM and of DAB have failed to follow it: both have emerged only slowly and, in the case of DAB, its future remains uncertain.
A further difficulty for DAB was the changing landscape of radio in many countries during the period of its development such that, by the time of its public launch in 1995, it was seen by some as reflecting a view of the radio industry that was out of date.
Just as, by the time FM was launched, other changes in radio had made its introduction more complex, so too we can observe similar, non-technological reasons for the problems in introducing DAB.
In the case of digital radio, it is possible to identify a number of intentions behind its development, from an imagined need to compete with other emerging technologies to a macro-economic need to aid a key industry. In contrast to the history of radio technology frequently presented as a straightforward series of technical challenges faced and solutions proffered, we find instead that apparently compelling innovations follow a complex path in which cultural practices and economic interests must be taken into account.”

[reprinted with permission of the author]

Monday, 19 July 2010

Cost/benefit analysis of DAB radio: Murdoch rushes in where governments fear to tread

Governments have had plenty of practice, over many years, of hiding reports from the electorate. In some cases, they might justify this as a matter of national security or military expedience. However, it is hard to understand how the UK government thought it could justify hiding from the public a cost/benefit analysis of digital radio switchover it had commissioned and then, a year later, have believed the matter had been successfully buried. But so it was, until the House of Lords Communications Committee intervened in early 2010.

On 6 February 2009, PricewaterhouseCoopers [PWC] delivered a 91-page report entitled ‘Cost Benefit Analysis of Digital Radio Migration’ to Ofcom. It contained a number of serious reservations that any benefits would arise from switchover to DAB radio, even by the year 2030:

“The results suggest that there are relatively few up-sides to the estimates, and several significant downside risks. … The results suggest that there is a very long pay-back from the Digital Radio Working Group [DRWG] policy ‘investment’ – the Net Present Value [NPV] turns positive after 2026. This result assumes that the existing multiplex licences are extended to 2030, as per the DRWG recommendations. Without the licence extension or any other policy instruments that provide clarity on the long term future of commercial radio, the industry and consumers may fail to see the benefits of digital radio over the longer term. Our analysis suggests that the NPV is negative should either of these two proposals not be implemented.” [emphasis added]

Since then, parliamentary policy has failed to provide “clarity on the long term future of commercial radio,” as evidenced by last week’s wholly ambivalent government statement about digital radio switchover. As a result, just as PWC predicted, industry and consumers increasingly “fail to see the benefits of digital radio over the longer term.”

The PWC report, and its verdict that digital radio switchover offers almost no benefits, remained hidden from public view from February until November 2009, when an appendix to the government’s Digital Economy Bill mentioned it casually. That citation raised questions: what was this PWC report, and why could not the public see it?

When the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications convened in January 2010 to consider the digital switchover issue, it asked those same questions of the Ofcom officers it invited to present evidence:

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: We understand that you commissioned a report from PWC last year into the costs and benefits of digital switchover in radio, but you didn’t publish it. We know, therefore, what we have learned from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport about what it said. It appears that it found, for example, that the benefits could – and I emphasise the word “could” – outweigh the costs by £437 million after 2026, but that conclusion is hedged about with quite a lot of caveats to do with what would have to happen in order for that good outcome to eventuate, and that if those things didn’t happen, then quite quickly you would get into a position where the costs would outweigh the benefits. Can you tell us a bit about that report? In particular, can you tell us why you haven’t published it? Do you think that, given what it appears to say – I choose my words carefully – about the constraints on potential for benefit, that it should have been available to inform the Government’s digital policy? ….. [edited]

Mr Peter Davies [Director of Radio Policy & Broadcast Licensing, Ofcom]: We were asked to commission it by the Government. We then commissioned it from PWC with a lot of input from various government departments and then submitted it to the Secretary of State.

Chairman: So you decided not to publish it.

Mr Stewart Purvis [Partner for Content & Standards, Ofcom]: …. [edited] On this particular occasion, it was decided in conjunction with the Department that work would be sent to the Department. Perhaps the most important thing is for Peter to respond to your characterisation of the work, but, in a sense, we have not hidden the piece of work. Indeed, I think it is now available to you. Is that right?

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: In, as they say, a redacted form.

Chairman: Just to be absolutely clear, the Department asked you to commission the work from PWC. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Purvis: They asked us to commission the work. Did they ask us specifically from PWC?

Mr Davies: Not specifically from PWC.

Chairman: The Department said to Ofcom, “Ofcom, you go and commission this particular work.” Is that the position?

Mr Davies: Yes.

Chairman: You then got the work which then came back to you and then you sent it to the Government and the Government said, “We’re not going to publish this in full.”

Mr Davies: I think they have certainly made it available to various groups. I think consumer groups have had it for some time.

Chairman: Fine. There will be no problem, therefore, in this Committee having the full report. …. [edited]

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: The thing that is slightly troubling – perhaps only to me, but a bit – is that when you see what appears to be evidence that the costs and benefits are, let’s say, finely balanced, or could be, that the drive towards digital migration, one might think, was driven more by the technology than by the needs either of the broadcasters or the consumers.

The Committee’s displeasure with Ofcom and the government was evident both in this exchange and in its subsequent report on digital switchover, published in March 2010, which stated:

“We strongly regret that the cost benefit analysis carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers was not published at the time it was delivered to Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport in February 2009.”

The government’s response to the Committee’s statement, published in June 2010, was:

“The Cost Benefit Analysis produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers, to accompany the work of the Digital Radio Working Group, was widely distributed amongst broadcasters and consumer representatives. However, there were technical difficulties which prevented the initial publication of the report on the DCMS website; these were rectified and the report published in February 2010.”

“Technical difficulties” for a whole year? As excuses go, this really takes the biscuit. It seems unlikely that the PWC report would ever have been made public, if not for the intervention of the House of Lords Communications Committee in January 2010 (first publication of the report’s findings was in this blog a few days later).

The PWC report did not offer the government the support for its digital radio switchover strategy that it had anticipated, so now it has to commission a further cost/benefit analysis which it hopes will produce a more favourable outcome. Is the government in a hurry to complete another study evaluating the supposed benefits of digital radio switchover? Hardly, judging by the evidence.

In June 2009, the government’s Digital Britain report had promised:

“We will conduct a full Impact Assessment, including a Cost/Benefit Analysis of Digital Radio Upgrade.”

In January 2010, Ofcom’s Peter Davies had offered evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee:

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: What about your own impact assessment?

Mr Davies: We haven’t done an impact assessment yet.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: But you have been asked to – correct?

Mr Davies: At some point in the future. I think the Digital Britain report said that we would be asked to do one, but we haven’t been asked to do one yet. Obviously we would need to do that and we would need a much fuller cost-benefit analysis before any final decision was taken.

Most recently, in June 2010, the government stated:

“We agree that a full impact assessment is an essential part of informing the Government’s decision on whether and when to move from a primarily analogue to a digital radio landscape. Work has already begun to collect the evidence needed to support an impact assessment and analysis should begin shortly.” [emphasis added]

Why bother with yet another report at this late hour in DAB’s history? Someone else has already done the sums. News International has just run its sliderule over the idea of launching a national digital radio station ‘SunTalk’ (a brand extension of its national daily newspaper ‘The Sun’) on the DAB platform. Its result was: DAB radio is not a viable commercial platform.

According to The Guardian: “News International management were considering extending the [SunTalk] station's reach by launching it nationally on DAB digital radio. But it is understood they baulked at the extra cost.”

If Murdoch cannot see a way to make a profit from a broadcast platform that is crying out for compelling content, then how exactly does any other content owner think it can make a financial return from DAB radio?

It’s the platforms Rupert Murdoch rejects ….

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?

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.