Betamax Radio Whispers

There’s been a kind of Chinese whispers around the UK’s DAB radio service that even reached the BBC yesterday.Prompted by the announcement by media company Gcap that they will pull 2 stations from the DAB network. The Jazz and Planet Rock will, unless a buyout occurs, cease transmission by the end of March and will have joined a number of other stations who have ceased broadcasting on the digital radio network including Oneword and Core.

DAB=Betamax? Betamax
The whispers of discontent began after Richard Wheatley, ceo of The Local Radio Company compared the DAB platform to Betamax the video format that lost out to VHS in the 80’s.

This seems a curious analogy as it’s not like there’s a rival digital service or that DAB is especially superior in audio when compared to existing FM services quality (despite the hype, it’s often not).Mr Wheatley is correct when he mixes metaphors and says that despite a rapid original adoption rate for DAB radio purchases and falling prices of DAB sets the platform has failed to build a greater adoption and has no ‘killer application’ by which he means no ‘must listen’ digital only radio station that would help drive current non DAB radio owners to rush out and buy a DAB set.

High Cost
Primarily what’s driving the death of stations on DAB is the disproportionately high cost of owning a slot on the band and the growth of alternative sources of radio including the Freeview digital TV service, cable, satellite and the Internet. The falling cost of Internet radio sets which offer the greatest range of stations may indeed eclipse the DAB platform eventually.

Quality Compromise
It hasn’t helped that the original technical specifications as used by DAB had rapidly been seen as a handicap to growth as the rush to cram a range of stations across available bandwidth saw compromises in broadcasting quality as using high quality bit rates to achieve high sound (in exactly the same way as a 160k bitrate mp3 will sound better than a 64k encoded version) quality cost the broadcaster more and much like Freeview compromises in bitrates were made in order to achieve quantity rather than quality and lower broadcasting costs.

So restrictive was the technology that the DAB platform has already decided to slowly scrap the broadcast format currently employed and migrate to a new DAB+ format which would allow a higher quality broadcast signal to fit in a much smaller slice of the bandwidth pie. This would use the AAC+ audio format which I often use to post audio files on this blog for dial-up of bandwidth restricted users. This would mean that existing DAB radio owners would need to purchase new sets or own a rare upgradeable set already.

Dab radiosThe Future
This doesn’t necessarily mean the death of DAB but it is a testing time for the platform. Either we’ll be left with less stations which may or may not expand their bandwidth to deliver better quality or the platform. Maybe Channel 4 will acquire some licenses for their Channel 4 radio plans (which includes content to compete with BBC’s radio 4). Or the platform will slowly die as people derive their radio from the existing FM services or cable, satellite and especially the Internet.

DAB radios photo by salimfadhley under this creative commons license

Betamax photo by Larry_G under this creative commons license

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