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DAB+ starts in the UK: what you need to know

By James Cridland for media.info
Posted 1 September 2014, 6.37am edt

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DAB+, the updated version of DAB in use in many parts of the world, is now on-air in the UK.

According to a blog by broadcaster and consultancy Folder Media, they have placed their Fun Kids station in DAB+ on a multiplex in Wrexham, Chester and Liverpool. The multiplex, said by Folder Media to have "one of the must advanced multiplexers in the UK", is operated by MuxCo which Folder Media manages.

FunKids+ will be broadcast as a test until 31st December 2014. It is initially a 64kbits/s signal.

DAB+ is likely to also be part of the new 'Digital 2' UK-wide DAB multiplex, when that starts broadcasting next year. Ofcom have given specific permission for DAB+ signals to be broadcast.

What's the difference?

DAB+ differs from the original DAB by having improved error correction and a more efficient audio codec.

The improved error correction should give better reception. A DAB+ radio, if it complies correctly with the specification, should never give you the 'boiling mud' burbling you may hear on a low signal. Additionally, the unpleasant digital squelch noise audible just before the radio loses signal should not be audible using DAB+; the radio ought to fade away gracefully.

The audio codec - the system that changes audio into data for transmission - changes from MP2 to HE-AAC v2. This could mean better audio quality. More likely is that broadcasters use this as a way to cut the bitrate their station uses, which saves them transmission costs while retaining audio quality. So, we're likely not to see massive increases in audio quality; instead, we're likely to see more choice of stations.

DAB+ and DAB signals can be broadcast on the same multiplex. DAB+ also offers surround-sound, if any broadcasters want to do it.

Where else is DAB+ in use?

DAB+ has been in operation in Australia for five years. Most radio stations have settled on 48, 64 or 96kbits/sec. Allocation of bitrate in Australia is rather different to the UK, however, with broadcasters allocated a portion of the available bitrate rather than negotiating per station.

While Australia were the first large country to broadcast DAB+, closer to home DAB+ is now in use in many European countries - Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium and Germany to name just a few. The UK is relatively unique in still exclusively using DAB.

What does this mean for my DAB radio?

A DAB+ radio will pick up original DAB transmissions; and if you have a relatively new DAB radio, it's probably already capable of DAB+ as well. Folder Media believe that 3m out of the 20m DAB sets sold so far in the UK can tune into DAB+ already.

An older, DAB-only, radio may not pick up DAB+ services; and they probably won't appear on the tuning dial. Some, however, will work with a software upgrade. When tuning into a DAB+ service, your radio may show you a website address to visit to discover how to upgrade your set. There may be a small charge for the software, because the software licence to use AAC isn't free.

The chances are that if your DAB set is also an internet radio receiver or has Bluetooth inside it, it'll already work with DAB+, since the AAC licence will have been obtained for the internet or Bluetooth bit.

If I'm buying a DAB radio, what do I need to know?

You should probably make sure it's DAB+ capable. And it probably will be.

Look out for the words "DAB+" on the box, a DAB+ logo, or the Digital Radio tick mark which means it's capable of receiving DAB+.

Because DAB+ is in wide use across Europe, new cars with DAB built-in are already capable of receiving DAB+.

Should I throw out all my old DAB radios?

No. Most of us still don't have any DAB+ signals to listen to; and broadcasters aren't quickly going to change.

I've got a 3G phone. Isn't this too little, too late for DAB?

This is a multiplatform world, and in the UK, every station available on DAB is also available online. So, if you want to listen online, that's fine. Nobody is asking you to choose between the two.

Online (desktop and mobile) accounts for 6.2% of all radio listening in the UK. DAB accounts for 24% - four times that of online. Listeners who use DAB tune in for 7.1 hours a week; those using online/apps use them for 4.1 hours a week. So, while there's no doubting that internet-delivered radio is a good thing, listeners appear to prefer DAB.

There are more technical details about DAB+ on the WorldDMB website.

James Cridland — James is the Managing Director of media.info, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. His website is at james.cridland.net, where you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter.
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