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Posts from — July 2009

Radio and Britain’s digital future

Should we keep FM? DAB? Or replace it with IP-based radio?

Should we keep FM? DAB? Replace it with IP-based radio?

Jack Schofield, writ­ing in the Guardian Tech­nol­o­gy Blog (1 July 2009), urges us to “Put the boot into DAB, and try to Save FM”. I might just agree… but for a slight­ly dif­fer­ent rea­son. Here’s the com­ment I added to the article.

If we are keep­ing dig­i­tal radio in its present form, then it cer­tain­ly makes sense for us to upgrade from cur­rent DAB’s anti­quat­ed MP2 tech­nol­o­gy to DAB+/DMB‑A, which allow the use of mod­ern codecs and thus high­er qual­i­ty (cur­rent DAB sta­tions are abysmal com­pared to good FM) on a far small­er bandwidth.

Yes, of course the vast major­i­ty of exist­ing DAB radios will be obso­lete at some point, but they do not have an enor­mous­ly long life any­way, and we are all used to hard­ware going out of date in today’s world, aren’t we? It’s a fact of life. We get new gad­gets because we want to, and because they do so much more than the old ones: there isn’t time for them to become tech­ni­cal­ly obsolete.

How­ev­er, there is a real ques­tion in my mind whether we should­n’t sim­ply skip all that and go to an IP-based sys­tem for the “radio space”.

Radio in the UK is obvi­ous­ly extreme­ly pop­u­lar — pos­si­bly more pop­u­lar than ever, appar­ent­ly para­dox­i­cal­ly, But whether “the space occu­pied by radio”, to use Bill Thomp­son’s excel­lent phrase, has to be car­ried on a mul­ti­plex ter­res­tri­al broad­cast struc­ture for the fore­see­able future is anoth­er mat­ter, because car­ry­ing it via IP net­works would make more sense.

Inte­grat­ing the radio space into a nation­al net­work infra­struc­ture would make the cur­rent Band III and L‑Band spaces avail­able for oth­er ser­vices — but only if that IP-based infra­struc­ture exists. It would require true broad­band of the fibre-to-the-home vari­ety sup­plied on a uni­ver­sal ser­vice basis — one <i>single</i> net­work in which the instal­la­tion of cheap­er urban infra­struc­ture would sub­sidise the hard-to-reach rur­al envi­ron­ments — and would thus need to be laid down by a nation­al ser­vice provider (even if it sub­con­tracts instal­la­tion to exist­ing pri­vate companies).

An FTTH infra­struc­ture would be backed up by large-scale WiMax-style wire­less net­work pro­vi­sion to allow mobile lis­ten­ing to inter­net radio sta­tions and much more, includ­ing cov­er­age of real­ly dif­fi­cult areas.

Giv­en that, then of course you can have all kinds of ‘ultra-local’ ‘broad­cast­ers’ — but they could be heard all over the coun­try (and beyond). Giv­en sym­met­ri­cal broad­band we can all be con­tent providers, even if, like most blogs, the vast major­i­ty only have a tiny audi­ence. At the same time, the net­work can car­ry all exist­ing radio broad­cast­ers and you no longer need to think of the “air­waves” as a scarce resource to which only the priv­i­leged few can have access — “here comes everybody”.

If a true Dig­i­tal Britain were in our future, then a sen­si­ble approach would be to hang on to FM until it’s in place. But cop­per-based 2Mb/s is not what this requires.

July 1, 2009   Comments Off on Radio and Britain’s digital future