Digital radio switchover explained
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.
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 2021?
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:
- Digital listening must reach 50% of all radio listening – this includes listening through TV and the internet as well as DAB. The latest figures show that this target has now been met.
- National DAB coverage is comparable to FM.
Figures for digital listening are now at a record 52.4%, up from 47.2% the year before. Although the 50% mark has now been passed, the government will carry out a review to decide how to progress so the switchover is unlikely to happen within the next two years.
Share of radio listening in the UK
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.