Proposed EU Comms Code to give digital radio boost

A provisional EU directive looks set to increase the DAB+ reach across Europe...
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Ford Ennals and Patrick Hannon

Ford Ennals and Patrick Hannon

Plans are underway to broaden the selection of digital terrestrial radio services across Europe and promote the uptake of the technology in general. Just before its summer recess the European Parliament voted in favour of proposals that will require new cars to feature radios capable of receiving digital radio signals.

In July the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) gave formal approval to a political deal proposed in trilogue - the three policy and law making institutions of the European Union (EU): the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council - that will eventually result in a new EU Electronic Communications Code, updating the existing telecommunications regulations that became law in 2009.

As might be expected, this updated Code, proposed by the Commission, focuses most of its 1,000-odd pages on mobile phones and devices, with the creation of new high-capacity fixed networks a priority. Part of this will involve making rules for co-investment “more predictable”, while encouraging risk to be shared in the deployment of new networks. There will also be a promotion of “sustainable competition for the benefit of consumers”.

A major part of the new Code will be to accelerate the rollout of 5G networks by making sure suitable radio spectrum is available in the EU by the end of 2020.

This is already underway through the reallocation of the 700MHz band, which has ramifications for digital terrestrial television (DTT) and, particularly, users of radio microphone and in-ear monitoring equipment. Once the frequencies have been allocated to mobile operators and new media companies, which will take part in a bidding process, the aim is to provide them with “predictability for at least 20 years in terms of spectrum licensing”.

Alongside these provisions are recommendations aimed at continuing and expanding the uptake of digital terrestrial radio across Europe. The aim appears to be to emulate what was done with DTT in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, which culminated in switching off analogue TV frequencies. Because the EU aims to be seen as “technology neutral”, it prefers to use the term “digital terrestrial radio” rather than naming specific formats. The two main systems currently used in European countries are DAB (increasingly its enhanced version, DAB+) and DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale).

Of the two, DAB/DAB+ is analogous to FM and has been implemented for national, regional and, most recently, small-scale local services. The technology was first implemented in the mid to late 1990s, with the UK a leading proponent. This explains why the country continues to use the first incarnation of DAB at a time when other European countries have either fully adopted DAB+ or are using a mixture of the two with the aim of eventually going completely for the enhanced version.

In 2017 Norway became the first European country to switch off its national analogue radio networks in favour of DAB+, although FM is still used for some local and community services. Italy and Switzerland are both considering similar moves by 2020, with other countries beginning to seriously consider the issue.

DRM was intended as the digital equivalent of medium and short wave and is used primarily for international broadcasting - as is the case with Radio France International, Radio Romania International and the BBC World Service - and in large countries with remote regions and varying terrain, such as India.

The proposals for digital terrestrial radio in the updated Communications Code are designed to further encourage member states in either implementing the technology or moving existing networks to the point where a digital switch-off (DSO) can be considered. Key amongst these is requiring car manufacturers to fit new passenger cars with receivers that can pick up digital radio transmissions as well as FM services.

WorldDAB is the international organisation that promotes the adoption of DAB/DAB+. Its president, Patrick Hannon, comments that it has been working with the EU institutions over the last three years to get support for the continuing roll-out of digital terrestrial radio across Europe. “We initially spoke to them about including digital radio in the 2016 Digital Single Market Strategy but that didn’t go as granular as to include radio,” Hannon says.

Since then, WorldDAB has continued to talk to members of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. He adds that what has emerged now breaks down into two areas: automotive on a pan-EU level and the approach of each member with regard to consumer digital radios in the home.

“On the automotive side, the proposed directive says that receivers in all new cars should have digital terrestrial capacity in addition to FM,” he comments. “That’s not official yet but we hope it will happen by the spring of next year. As far as consumer radios are concerned, essentially it will be up to member states to legislate in they way they want.”

Hannon says WorldDAB welcomes the proposed new Code for a number of reasons. “It probably does two things,” he comments. “There’s the recognition from the EU that digital terrestrial radio is an important part of the [broadcast/media] ecosystem. That doesn’t mean it is being in all countries of the EU but several, if not the majority, are using it so. So being able to move from one country to another and get the benefits of the technology is significant.”

Another aspect is the acknowledgement that a terrestrial format developed from a technology - wireless radio transmission - over 120 years old still has a role to play at a time when IP and data-based communications are seen as the future. Over the last 10 or so years the argument has been put forward that systems such as DAB/DAB+ are rapidly becoming obsolete, with internet radio offering similar services and benefits on a wider range of devices.

Proponents of digital radio have argued against this and Hannon says the EU’s draft Code confirms it still has a role to play: “We talk about the benefits of terrestrial digital radio and that there is still a need for it in a world of IP. From a policy-maker’s point of view there are several advantages, including the fact that it’s free to air, but the major benefit is that it is reliable.

“Digital broadcast radio will not crash when there is bad weather or if there is something more extreme, like a terrorist attack. In such situations mobile networks are prone to collapse.”

While the proposed legislation is not specifically about DAB, Hannon feels it does acknowledge it as “a core platform in Europe”. As for digital radio technology in general, he says, “this is a clear signal that the EU is supportive of it. They want to see it prosper in the 21st century but it is down to the individual governments [within the EU] to do that.”

There are signs that this is beginning to happen in several EU countries now. Hannon cites Italy, which began looking at the shift to digital on a regional basis, as planning to introduce new legislation. In France the government has said that when digital radio coverage hits 20 per cent of French territory, manufacturers will be required to fit DAB+ tuners into all equipment sold in the country. “And the coalition in Germany is pushing for legislation but is talking about interoperability and capacity,” Hannon says. “There is no timetable but countries are moving in the direction of digital.”

Despite the enthusiasm of regulators and politicians, there has been vocal and significant resistance from listeners in many countries who do not want to lose their FM radios and frequencies. Hannon responds by saying that all new radios, both for car and home, have analogue capability as well as digital. But he does acknowledge the dissent, which was prominent in Norway (although it should be pointed out that the country is not an EU member).

“There were many who were disgruntled by the switch-off in Norway and there has been a slight decline in listening numbers,” Hannon says. “By the end of 2017 there had been a drop of about 10 per cent, which was expected and is non-trivial. But by the second quarter of this year it had narrowed to about seven per cent and what has come out of it is that a third of listening is now to stations that weren’t on FM.”

Although it has lead the way with digital radio and DAB in particular, the UK does have pockets of resistance against the technology. Then there is the matter of resistance from significant proportions of the country to directives from the EU and the impending departure from the Union. However, Hannon does not think leaving the EU will have an impact on the adoption of digital radio: “The UK is in the fortunate position of having more than 90 per cent of new cars fitted with digital radios. This directive may or may not have become official by March 2019 but the government has talked about regulatory alignment.”

Digital Radio UK similarly welcomes the proposed Code. “We see it as good news for drivers in Europe as it will mean all new cars will be DAB/DAB+ compatible and have access to the full range of broadcast services across Europe,” says chief executive Ford Ennals. “In the UK over 92 per cent of new cars have DAB/DAB+ as standard but we are pushing towards 100 percent so welcome legislation that would facilitate that.”

Ennals observes that the updated Code will “embed digital radio more securely across the whole of Europe”, moving on from what has already taken place. “The development of the Code reflects the expansion across many European member states, including Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Holland, Denmark and Belgium,” he says. “The expectation is that over time more countries will adopt the common standard for digital radio and ultimately some nations, like Switzerland and Norway, will choose to switch off analogue broadcasts.”

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