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UK digital radio transition effort holds lessons for AM revitalization

HD Radio on vintage AM radioTo say that public comments on the FCC’s AM revitalization proposals are barely trickling in could be charitably called an understatement. As of yesterday there were a total of three comments filed. Two of these are from amateur radio operator Nickolaus Leggett, which Matthew reviewed last week.

In the absence of more commentary on the serious possibility that the AM band could go all-digital, it is instructive to look across the pond. In the UK the government and regulators are actively considering plans to phase out analog radio altogether, perhaps as soon as 2018, though not without some friction.

The UK has had digital radio since 1995, eight years ahead of the first digital HD Radio broadcast in the US. The DAB standard used there broadcasts on a band separate from analog FM and AM (MW), unlike HD Radio which broadcasts a digital signal alongside the analog one on the same band. According to the broadcast regulator Ofcom 19% of all radio listening hours in 2013 were on broadcast DAB, while 41.7% of UK households say they can listen to that service.

Plans to transition the UK to all-digital by 2018 are not coming without some push-back. Labour MP Helen Goodman said she thinks the government is putting the interests of big broadcasters ahead of listeners. “Given the cost of living crisis this is not the time to force the majority of people in this country to spend £50 or more on buying a new digital radio,” she said.

The Radio Centre trade group representing UK commercial stations is lobbying hard for the 2018 changeover. But another group of more than 80 commercial stations is saying a digital changeover would harm local radio and cost households “several hundred pounds” each.

The chairman of one radio group said that there’s no need to commit to a digital transition, noting that analog and digital services have co-existed peacefully for more than a decade. He noted, “We are not saying it’s bad technology but what’s the point of excluding listeners from the services they are comfortable with?”

At a House of Commons debate on the topic on November 28 Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan said that upgrading to DAB transmission is too expensive, making it “fundamentally the wrong platform for genuinely local stations.” A local broadcaster said that starting a DAB station costs between 2 and 10 times the cost of an FM station.

Responding to these criticisms, the UK’s Minister of Communications announced that digital transition date will not be announced anytime soon. He echoed MP Goodman’s sentiment, saying “There will be no switchover until the majority of listening is digital.”

Here in the States proponents of HD Radio would be thrilled if digital radio listening were nearly as popular as it is in the UK. While more than 1900 stations broadcast in HD Radio the technology is mostly found in car radios, where 20% of cars sold in 2012 had this feature. But on the whole HD Radio is widely believed to be available only on about 1% of radios in use, far below the penetration rate for DAB in the UK.

Even though many commentators and listeners alike regard the AM band as a fossil encasing the calcified remains of conservative talk and geriatric easy listening, I’d bet that a large percentage of the millions of AM listeners would protest having to buy new digital receivers. Further complicating things, an all-digital HD Radio broadcast very well may not be compatible with current HD receivers that are designed for today’s hybrid analog/digital broadcasts. So, even the comparatively small pool of HD Radio listeners (like me) would have to upgrade in order to stay tuned in.

If elected officials from both major parties in the UK can agree that a hasty digital transition is a bad thing, it’s not hard to imagine that a forced digitization of AM in the US might raise ire across the aisles of Congress, too. How many phone calls from loyal Rush Limbaugh listeners ticked off about having to buy a new, probably expensive, HD AM Radio will a Republican congressman have to hear before siding against a government-mandated transition?

Comments on the FCC’s AM revitalization plans are due January 21, 2014. We should expect to see more comments from inside and outside the broadcast industry as that date draws near. Expect your intrepid Radio Survivors to keep our fingers in the wind.

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  1. The state of global DAB and DAB+ radio | Radio Survivor - December 12, 2013

    […] nations with “regular” DAB/DAB+ service. Most of them are in Europe. They include the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain, but also South Korea, China, Australia, and […]

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