It's been a long time coming but DAB is finally pushing FM off the national airwaves. Kevin Hilton reports on the big radio moves in pioneering Norway and what it could mean for other European countries
Norway began switching off its national FM networks on 11 January, becoming the first country move towards a fuller digital radio infrastructure. The digital switchover (DSO) will continue over the course of this year, with the last region due to lose analogue transmissions in December. The Norwegian government has justified the landmark step by citing the increase in services and coverage. Critics say the country's listeners are not ready for such a momentous change, with the in-car sector particularly unprepared.
The Norwegian DSO has been on the world digital radio agenda since 2011 but the final government go-ahead came only in December 2016. In the build-up to the announcement broadcasters have been preparing for change-over. Transmission provider Norkring, which also operates in Belgium, has built a new transmitter network on behalf of national public broadcaster NRK, commercial media group Bauer and Digital Radio Norway.
The new network comprises 970 transmitter sites with 170,000 metres of cabling and is claimed to offer coverage for 99.5 percent of the Norwegian population. The cost of this development and roll-out is estimated at one billion Norwegian kroner (c.£96m/€111m). It carries 30 radio channels nationwide – 15 public service and 15 commercial – compared to the five national services previously available on FM.
The majority of the stations are broadcast using DAB+ technology, introduced in 2007, but the whole operation is referred to generically as DAB. "The term DAB refers to both DAB and DAB+," explains Mari Hagerup, a spokeswoman for Digital Radio Norway. "Today we still have two commercial channels transmitting on DAB, the rest are on DAB+. The technologies do not have any differences in terms of coverage, the only difference is network capacity."
Digital Radio Norway is jointly owned by NRK, Bauer and commercial radio operator P4 Group. It was established to promote digital radio and oversee the shift from FM to DAB. "Radio needs modernisation and renewal," comments the organisation's chief executive, Ole Jørgen Torvmark. "FM technology was introduced in the 1950s and is very limited in relation to current needs. DAB provides the capacity we need to generate more content for listeners. FM gives no room for more national channels in a country like Norway, where the challenging terrain and sparse population place great demands on the broadcasting networks."
Torvmark adds that due to the age of the existing FM network a massive investment would be need to continue analogue transmissions. New FM stations went on air in 1993 and 2004 but DAB has been seen as the obvious successor since the technology went into operation in 1995. The death knell for Norwegian FM on a national basis sounded on 11 January in the northern town of Bodø, capital of the Nordland region. The switch-off is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017, although it is not total because FM will continue to be used for local and community services.
Despite the positive spin from Digital Radio Norway, not everyone is convinced by the switch to digital. The Reuters news agency quotes a December 2016 opinion poll by tabloid newspaper Dagladet showing 66 per cent of Norwegians to be against the FM switch-off, with only 17 per cent for the move. Ib Thomsen, an MP in the Progress Party, part of the Conservative-led coalition government, said the country was not ready for the DSO. "There are two million cars on Norwegian roads that don't have DAB receivers and millions of radios in Norwegian homes will stop working when the FM network is switched off," he told Reuters. "There is definitely a safety concern."
Mari Hagerup at Digital Radio Norway counters that 49 per cent of listeners are shown to have waited for the switch-over before upgrading their cars. "This has been an expected delay and also why we have regional DSOs," she says. "The FM network is shut down region by region to make sure people get the needed amount of time to upgrade cars. We do expect the number of car installations to increase in the months to come." Hagerup adds that surveys show audio quality as an important feature, with 40 per cent of listeners preferring DAB+ because of this.
The DSO is significant for Norway but is potentially a key factor in similar decisions by other countries. Switzerland has plans for a switch-off to start in 2020 but 2017 looks like being pivotal. The South Tyrol region of Italy will begin switching off FM this year, while the UK is due to review the futures of DAB and FM. What ever else happens in 2017, it looks like being a critical year for digital radio.
Pictures: Top: The Digital Radio Norway caravan touring the countryside. Second: Nordland resident and radio listener Berith Pauline Olderskog throws the level to switchover from FM to DAB, watched by Radio Norway presenter and comedian Geir Schau.