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Digital radio switchover explained

By Ben Stockton

Find out all you need to know about the digital radio switchover, how it could affect you and when it's likely to happen.

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What is the digital radio switchover?

Much like the digital television switchover in 2012, the digital radio switchover will see a change in the source of radio entertainment from an analogue platform (FM and AM, for example) to a digital one. As such, in order to listen to radio stations that are broadcast digitally, you will need to own a device that can pick up a digital signal.

Get ready for the switchover with one of our Best Buy digital radios.

The government proposes to make Digital Audio Broadcast, commonly known as DAB, the main broadcast platform for national radio stations, so you will no longer be able to receive these stations via your old FM/AM radio, but certain criteria must be met before a switchover can take place.

There are currently three national digital multiplexes (the platforms that hold stations), one for the BBC and two commercial, the latest of which launched in March 2016.  

FM will likely still be used for local and community radio stations, although Ofcom has been trialling small-scale digital radio multiplexes in an attempt to bring these to DAB, too.

What is digital radio?

Much like analogue radio isn’t only FM, digital radio isn’t only DAB. ‘Digital radio’ is a blanket term to include broadcasts on the internet and listening to the radio on a TV, as well as on a DAB radio.

Internet radio offers more stations than DAB - including local radio stations that aren’t in the area you’re in and international radio stations. 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.

Could the digital radio switchover happen in 2017 or 2018?

The government has said that once a switchover is announced a further two years at least will pass before the actual switchover takes place.

FM will be around for a while yet – there is currently no fixed date to announce a switchover to digital radio. The government has set certain criteria before the switchover can even be scheduled.

These criteria are:

  1. Digital listening must reach 50% of all radio listening – this includes listening through TV and the internet as well as DAB. 
  2. National DAB coverage is comparable to FM.

With figures for digital listening sitting at 48.7% at the moment. This figure has languished around this point for some time, partly due to the fact that DAB coverage has remained patchy. The current trajectory would see it pass the 50% mark in early 2018 and hence, it’s highly unlikely the switchover will happen before 2020.

So there’s no rush to replace your old FM sets with a shiny new DAB one. You may also want to check the coverage in your area before you buy - find which stations you can expect to pick up with Digital Radio UK's coverage checker


The benefits of DAB radio

More stations – 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.

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.

Blue-sky thinking – Digital radio offers more features and possibilities for manufacturers to develop radio content as a source of entertainment and information than analogue radio does, including greater interactivity with broadcasts. 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 starts at around £40.

Reception is far from perfect – DAB reception is patchy across the country. 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.

In-car listening – Although 87% of new cars are fitted with DAB radios, millions remain on the road without them. DAB adaptors allow cars with analogue radios to pick up digital transmissions. Efforts have also been made to increase DAB coverage of major road networks and, consequently, last year saw a 45% increase in digital in-car listening.

Is the digital radio switchover a consumer-led decision?

At Which?, we feel strongly that a radio switchover should only take place when people are ready and that no one should be left unable to receive national radio in the event of a switchover.

DAB coverage and reception in homes must be addressed before a switchover, as well as the cost impact on consumers of replacing FM radios with digital equivalents.

If digital radio switchover is to be a success, broadcasters and radio manufacturers need to provide clear benefits in digital radio above FM, so that consumers want and choose to switch over.

Government switchover criteria includes a consumer-based target figure for digital radio uptake, however we feel it needs to go further to ensure that no one is left without radio in the event of a switchover.

How do you feel about the switchover? Let us know and join the Which? Conversation discussing whether the UK is ready to switch off FM radio for good.

Ready to buy? Take a look at our digital radio reviews to find out which is the best for you.


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