Digital radio switchover explained What is digital radio switchover?
Digital radio switchover is a similar proposition to digital television switchover - switching consumers from getting their entertainment from an analogue platform to a digital one.
Government proposes to make DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) the main broadcast platform for national radio stations but certain criteria must be met before a switchover can take place.
Two important points to note about radio switchover are:
It's not an analogue radio switch off. FM will still be used for ultra local and community radio stations, but at switchover, national radio stations will stop broadcasting on FM in favour of digital platforms.
A switchover date hasn’t been confirmed yet. Certain criteria set by government has to be satisfied before there is a decision on when radio switchover will happen.
Industry is working towards a target date of 2015, but it is purely a target and subject to change, so you can continue to listen to FM for the time being. The switchover criteria will determine when we will actually switch over - Which? thinks it is likely to be later than 2015.
For more information see our 'When will radio switch over to digital?' page.
What is digital radio?
Just as analogue radio isn’t just about FM, digital radio isn’t just DAB. The term ‘digital radio’ includes broadcasts on a DAB radio, the internet and listening to the radio using a digital television.
Internet radio offers more stations than DAB – including local radio stations that aren’t in the area you’re in and international radio stations. However, industry experts say the internet is far from being capable of supporting the volume of listeners FM currently receives. DAB can serve a high volume of listeners, so it is looked upon as the main digital radio platform for the future.
Some DAB/FM radios are also capable of streaming internet radio, so you can enjoy ‘listen again’ programmes and overseas internet radio stations without having to switch on a computer.
Find the best internet radios with our digital radios feature comparison tool.
Why switch over? The benefits of DAB radio
Digital radio offers more features and possibilities for manufacturers to develop radio content than analogue radio does. Some aspects of digital radio benefit industry, others are aimed at consumers. Whether the additional features are deemed as benefits by individual consumers will depend upon what people want from their radio.
The FM spectrum is crowded. Digital platforms provide space for more stations which, from a consumer perspective, should mean a greater choice of stations to listen to.
Many of the national radio stations you already receive on FM will be on digital, plus a number of digital only stations. Currently, digital radio offers more station choice than FM in many areas of the country, but how many you receive on a DAB radio in your house will depend on how many are being broadcast on DAB from the transmitters within range of where you are.
The internet is a digital platform. If you’re listening to the radio via the internet you can access stations from all over the world.
No dual transmission costs
Currently, broadcasters are paying dual transmission fees for broadcasting the same stations on FM and DAB. Moving to one platform will reduce costs for industry.
Digital also enables broadcasters to develop radio as a source of entertainment and information, through increased interactivity with the radio.
Additional functions such as scrolling text information about the show or music you’re listening to are available on DAB and some DAB radios are capable of pausing, rewinding and recording live radio too.
The downsides of DAB radio
Radios are more expensive
DAB radios are more expensive than analogue radios because the components are more expensive to produce. Currently, a decent sounding DAB radio is likely to set you back around £60.
Reception not perfect
DAB reception is patchy across the country at present. If you're listening to a DAB radio station and reception is poor, the sound may cut out and stutter - rather than going a bit fuzzy the way FM does - making DAB very unpleasant to listen to.
Hundreds more transmitters are to be installed before a switchover date is announced.
Aside from improvements in coverage, getting DAB into existing cars will be a challenge. Adaptors are available, but may not be the most attractive option as they are a separate unit – like having a sat nav stuck to your windscreen.
Built-in solutions are available for some cars, but not all. Fitting them is likely to require a new aerial and professional fitting, which will increase costs. Expect to pay at least £100 to convert to a built-in solution. The logistics and cost of getting DAB into cars is being discussed as part of the government’s Digital Radio Action Plan.
Time delay on transmissions
There is a time delay with digital radio compared with analogue radio, just as there is between analogue and digital TV due to the processes in reassembling the digital signal when it’s received. The delay is noticeable if you're listening to the same station on an analogue and a DAB radio.
The delay may be longer on some digital radios than others. The components and wiring in a digital radio can have an impact on time delay too – we've heard reports of people hearing a delay between two different digital radios when listening to the same station.
DAB not widely used abroad
DAB isn’t broadcast in as many countries as FM, making DAB less useable overseas. Many, but not all, DAB radios sold in the UK from mid 2009 have a chip compatible with DAB+ and DMB broadcasts – part of the same family of standards as DAB and used in some countries. Such DAB radios could potentially be used overseas, but you may have to contact the manufacturer of the radio for an upgrade for it to work.
You can find out more about DAB+ in our DAB+ advice guide.