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Sweden Nixes FM Shut-Off

Back in April of last year news headlines across tech and news sites screamed that Norway was about to turn off all FM transmitters. The reality, of course, is a bit more complex–only 23 stations in the three biggest cities will turn off their analog signals in 2017, while some 200 FM stations outside this area have a longer lease on life. At the same time there were rumblings that Sweden was also mulling its own analog to digital transition.

However, it looks like the Swedes are going to wait and watch how it goes with its Nordic neighbor’s FM switch-off before moving forward with any plan of its own. Earlier this month the Swedish parliament officially ended any digital radio transition, following the recommendation of the Auditor General. Note that breathless headlines (in English) have not followed that bit of news.

The plan in Norway is eventually to move all FM broadcasters to what is known as DAB, a digital radio broadcast system that uses a different set of frequencies than analog radio. DAB broadcasts have been available in 30 countries beginning in 2001, with Europe home to the most stations. Still, Norway likely will remain an outlier when it begins its digital transition next year. Several other countries, including Germany, France and the UK, have entertained proposals to transition fully from FM to DAB, but these plans are also up in the air.

Nevertheless, this hesitancy to sunset analog radio doesn’t mean that DAB digital radio is dead on arrival. As John Anderson reports, digital radio adoption in Europe continues to grow, according to the European Broadcasting Union. Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the UK lead the way.

While these top countries are just cresting a 50% adoption rate amongst radio listeners, this far outpaces digital radio in the US, where we are saddled with the very different HD Radio system that squeezes digital signals onto the analog dial. As a result a Norwegian-style analog radio turn-off appears far away. Exhibit A is that last fall the FCC chose not to implement proposals to “revitalize” the AM dial by authorizing all-digital broadcasts in that band. Chance missed.

I have no particular grudge against digital radio, though I do wish the US had implemented the technically superior DAB system instead of HD Radio. But I continue to be an advocate of analog broadcasting because it is simple, robust, proven and has yet to be actually surpassed by digital in terms of quality or reach. There may come a day when digital broadcast or mobile internet technologies are ready to offer the kind of nearly infallible service–especially in times of emergency or disaster–that analog radio has for nearly 100 years. But until then, I vote for analog.

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