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20 years of DAB: The slow road to where?

Digital radio is part of modern life but it has been no overnight success. Kevin Hilton considers where the technology came from and where it might be going

On the face of it the DAB (digital audio broadcasting) digital radio format has been growing in Europe over the past 10 or so years. WorldDAB, the international body that promotes the technology and sets specifications for it, reports that there are now over 40 million DAB radios being used, with the rate of uptake increasing all the time. There are more services available and countries including Norway and Switzerland are moving towards switching off analogue transmission in favour of a digits-only radio world.

The reality is that it has taken a long time to get to this point, and there is probably still a way to go before a whole-scale move away from FM. DAB’s roots lie in research undertaken during the early 1980s by the Institut für Rundfunktechnik (IRT; Institute for Broadcasting Technology). The push towards creating a standard came in 1987 with the formation of the Eureka 147 project, which was backed by the European Economic Community – now the European Union – and included the BBC, Bosch, Deutsche Telekom, Philips and, latterly, JVC, RAI, Sony and Swedish Broadcasting. The intention was to produce something spectrum and power efficient that could carry more services in a single frequency by using orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) and differential QPSK modulation.

Operationally this year marks 20 years on air for DAB. On 27 September 1995 the BBC, followed a day later by Swedish Radio, started broadcasting using new digital transmitter networks. This was described as a ‘switch-on’ of pilot services rather than a full launch because, for the BBC at least, the offering was largely a simulcast of its existing national stations.

Even if there had been brand-new services, very few, if any, listeners would have been able to hear them due to the lack of DAB radios on the market. These did not begin to appear in any substantial numbers – and at attractive prices – until the end of the ’90s. (Pictured is the first sub-£100 DAB player, the Pure Evoke 1S, launched in 2002.) Despite this the UK remained committed to the technology, while Sweden slowed its roll-out programme. The UK’s digital radio offering expanded with the launch of the Digital One commercial multiplex in 1999 and the start of brand-new BBC services in the early 2000s.

Denmark and Germany were among the other European countries to move into DAB but there was not a wide-scale adoption. Part of this was attributed to the receiver situation, particularly for the in-car market, which, somewhat ironically, was the sector that featured heavily in initial DAB tests and demonstrations. There were also concerns that DAB was limited in what it could offer, if not already outmoded, and that it still compared unfavourably to FM in terms of quality and coverage. To make matters worse there was consumer resistance, with some listeners daunted by the technology and others resentful of having to buy new equipment.

That situation has changed dramatically, although there remains a section of the industry that considers terrestrial digital radio in general to have missed its chance, with its internet equivalent the more likely to succeed. WorldDAB used IBC to push what it sees as a success story, with the organisation’s president, Patrick Hannon, saying that “a tipping point” had been reached. “One of the clear developments is in automotive,” he said. Today 70 per cent of new cars are fitted with DAB+, the enhanced version of the original format with better sound quality and greater potential for interactivity. “As well as the first countries to adopt DAB/DAB+, we are seeing take up in Austria, the Czech Republic, Turkey, South Africa and some Arab states,” Hannon (pictured) says.

The place of internet radio was recognised, with Simon Fell of the EBU predicting that hybrid radio would play a major part in the future of sound broadcasting. There is also the realisation that FM spectrum is, in Hannon’s assessment, “full”. Broadcasters are aware of this; in Germany ARD is reportedly discussing the end of FM services.

Amid all the positives a warning was sounded by Elena Puigrefagut (pictured) a senior project engineer with the EBU who has been studying spectrum availability. She pointed out that the World Radio Conference (WRC) in November was poised to not only approve the freeing up of the 700MHz band for mobile services but also move DAB out of the L-band: “Band III is not fully used for DAB so we have to get the message across – either use it or lose it.”

DAB is now established and taking hold, but there are still variables that could seriously affect its future – although that does seem to have been the story of its life.