DAB in the UK is on the verge of becoming a marginalised medium, according to a new book published this month, reports Kevin Hilton.
DAB: Licensed to Fail catalogues the litany of mistakes and missed opportunities that author Grant Goddard sees as leading up to this point, with the technology now facing an uncertain future.
Goddard, an independent radio analyst and blogger, is careful to point out in his foreword that he is not attacking the core technology, Eureka 147.
"There is nothing wrong with DAB radio," he writes. "The technology, the motivation to widen listener choice and the opportunity to improve broadcast audio quality are all fine objectives. The only thing wrong with DAB radio is its specific implementation in the UK."
The UK was at the forefront of digital radio development and in the mid-90s became the first country to launch a DAB platform. The BBC led the way with by simulcasting its five national networks and gradually introducing specific digital channels, notably 6Music and Radio 7, during the early 2000s.
The British commercial radio sector was also initially bullish about DAB. The national Digital 1 multiplex offered specialist services including Planet Rock and Oneword alongside relays of analogue channels like Virgin Radio and Classic FM. As advertising revenue declined commercial groups such as GCap (now absorbed into Global) found sustaining analogue and digital transmissions a financial burden.
It is this sector that DAB Digital Radio: Licensed to Fail examines in particular. "Commercial radio is barely profitable in aggregate now," Goddard comments. "At one time it was very profitable but the issue of DAB has moved the position of the UK industry. The pursuit of the DAB switchover has diminished the ability of the industry to develop. It's also prevented other platforms from developing."
The key platform in Goddard's view is internet radio, which he characterises as the hare to DAB's tortoise. "Ten years ago we were talking about listening to internet radio at a desktop computer," he says. "Now we're looking at IP delivery to all kinds of handheld devices."
Goddard acknowledges that internet radio still accounts for a small proportion of listening but feels it has surpassed DAB. "Broadcast radio remains important but in the future consumers who want additional choice or something different or to listen to a programme they've missed will turn to the internet to supplement established services," he explains.
Digital Radio UK, which promotes DAB in Britain, was approached for a reaction. It did not issue a specific comment but restated its support of the government's Digital Radio Action Plan, with a target date of 2015 for a switchover from analogue.
Grant Goddard does not think any switchover will take place, whether in five years time or beyond. "I see DAB becoming another radio option," he says. "Broadcast radio will still be FM because it is virtually universal, although that took some time to happen. I don’t think the UK will be so bold as to scrap DAB entirely but it will just tootle along without ever getting to the level of take-up needed for digital switchover to ever happen."