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Swedish government says no to DAB+ switchover

By James Cridland for media.info
Posted 26 June 2015, 5.32am edt

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The Swedish government has decided not to go ahead with a switchover to DAB+: unlike their neighbour Norway, who is switching off FM for most stations in 2017.

The Culture and Democracy Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke, who is with the Green Party, wrote that there was too much uncertainty about a switchover decision. Among the reasons given were that, in practice, ten million radio receivers would become useless. Commercial radio were also unable to agree on parts of the plan. You can read the entire paper below.

"The government also feels that our current radio system, i.e FM broadcasts complemented by internet radio, are not lacking in such a way as to motivate a switchover," she added.

A switchover roadmap was requested by the government on digital switchover, and the proposal, Från analog till digital marksänd radio: en plan från Digitalradiosamordningen, was delivered in December last year from academic Nina Wormbs.

The proposal was similar to Norway's successful switchover, and required coverage to be at a certain level and a 50% digital radio reach figure. (The UK's digital radio reach figure is 53.3%.)

Every day around 5.7 million people in Sweden listen to the radio.

In Sweden, 4.2m households completed a digital switchover for television between 2005 and 2007. 4.6m televisions became useless: at least, required a set-top box to continue watching television.

Cilla Benkö, Swedish Radio's Director General, is unhappy with the decision. “Postponing the development of a digital terrestrial network is bad news for the Swedish radio audience,” she said.

“In countries such as Norway and Denmark, where the digital terrestrial network is used with full force in a competitive market, we are seeing the radio audience increase both in terms of user numbers and listening time. This is because the radio audience has new and exciting stations to listen to. We are not seeing any corresponding increase in listening in Sweden,” she added. She makes more comments below.

Mats Åkerlund, the Digital Radio co-ordinator at Swedish Radio, adds: “Many countries in Europe are developing digital terrestrial networks for radio. In 18 months’ time our neighbour, Norway, will begin the transition from FM to DAB. NRK's emergency preparedness will then be transferred to the Norwegian DAB network which, according to the authority responsible, now has a better coverage in the country than FM and which is also considered to be as robust as FM. So it is likely that we will soon be able to look to Norway for answers.”

Watching how neighbours Norway cope with switchover is a wise idea; and communicating a good reason why radio should go digital.

The Government's statement

By Alice Bah Kuhnke, Minister for Culture and Democracy

Every day around 5.7 million people in Sweden listen to the radio. Whether we listen at the breakfast table, on the bus, or in the garden, the radio is a huge part of our day. Swedish radio broadcasts have huge penetration and are in many ways unique, in an international perspective. Radio fills a central role in our media landscape and therefore also for the freedom of speech and information.

The question of which broadcast technology should be used for radio has been debated for a long time both here in Sweden and abroad. Most agree that terrestrial networks will be a central form of distribution for a very long time to come, and that terrestrial broadcasts have their advantages, even if other forms of distribution, such as radio via the internet and mobile phones are also emerging.

But do terrestrial radio broadcasts, which are still analogue, need to be digitalized? The issue has been up for discussion for years, with the focus on DAB+.

The previous government appointed an industry co-ordinator in the summer of 2013. Her job was to draw up a plan of how to make the switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial radio transmissions. Her task was not to decide whether such a switchover should take place, but rather how the digitalization should be carried out, with the starting point that FM transmissions should be phased out by 2022.

In December last year the government received the co-ordinator’s report. According to that proposal, digitalization should begin in 2016, with FM broadcasts by Sveriges Radio and commercial channels to be phased out by 2022, or 2024 at the latest.

In practice, closing the FM transmission network, as suggested by the co-ordinator, would mean that ten million radio receivers would become useless and consumers would have to purchase new ones. For such a change in technology to be justified there would of course have to be good reasons, supported by a wide-ranging studies. Our process of consultation with interested parties, authorities, companies and organisations have therefore played an important role.

The result of the consultation is divided. There are those who want to see a digitalization according to the proposals, there are others who are critical of any digitalization whatsoever. Some of those who are in favour of digitalisation, or who don’t oppose it, still have some reservations. Among the benefits, there are several potential developmental possibilities by totally leaving the FM band and switching to DAB+. It would create space to increase the number of radio channels available, and it would improve competition between the actors in the system.

But despite these benefits the results of the consultation also raise several drawbacks and uncertainties connected with a switchover.

  • One of the most serious objections is how a switchover would affect the “total defence” and Sweden’s capacity to deal with emergencies, not least the possibility to broadcast so-called “VMA warning broadcasts” at times of crisis or danger. The Swedish Military, the National Defence Radio Establishment and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency all mention the risk that a switchover would affect “VMA” broadcasts and other parts of the “total defence” system in a negative and costly way.
  • Broadcast coverage is another problem lifted by several respondents to the consultation. Even if coverage is expanded as much as possible, it is unclear whether broadcasts would reach the whole of Sweden. The Swedish Transport Agency points out uncertainty as regards the coverage of digital radio at the edges of the archipelagos, some large mountain lakes and at sea around the coastline, something that could have a negative impact on shipping, reliant as it is on weather forecasts and “VMA” warnings.
  • Along with Sveriges Radio, commercial radio stations clearly welcome the switchover to digital radio. However, there are widely differing proposals in the responses from MTG and SBS Discovery Radio as to how the current analogue broadcast licenses for FM should be dealt with in the run-up to the switchover. In the directives for the government co-ordinator, it was made clear that a prerequisite for starting to make the move away from analogue broadcasts was that representatives from commercial radio were in agreement, a demand that has not been met.
  • A central prerequisite for a successful transition to digital radio is that there is a demand from the general public. The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority raises the point that it is uncertain whether there is a consumer-driven demand, something the Swedish National Audit Office also mentions in its recent report. Without a strong demand any benefits of the switchover risk being lost after the investments have already been made.

The results of the round of consultation are not unanimous. Different actors come to different conclusions about some decisive technical aspects. When it comes to the government’s assessment, it is has been important that there is clear and widespread support among the respondents to be able to make a clear decision about one of our most important media channels. That clear and widespread support is lacking.

On the basis of the results of the round of consultation the government’s conclusion is therefore to not go any further with the switchover to DAB+. Any such switchover is too closely linked to great uncertainty, particularly when it comes to the role of radio broadcasts in Swedish crisis management. The government also feels that our current radio system, i.e FM broadcasts complemented by internet radio, are not lacking in such a way as to motivate a switchover.

As with many other political decisions, especially those where technology is constantly developing, there could later be the need to once again look at the issue of digitalising terrestrial radio broadcasts. The government will keep track of developments, for example in Norway. There, due in part to a greater need to upgrade the FM network than here in Sweden, FM broadcasts will start to be phased out in January 2017 and replaced by DAB+ broadcasts. In particular, the government will keep track of how Norway deals with the defence and national security aspects of a switchover.

The future of radio is central for the whole of our society. That is why we have had a dialogue about DAB+ with parliament’s culture committee. The government will now closely follow the developments when it comes to the future of radio listening and continue to make sure it has wide parliamentary support for its media policies.

The response from Swedish Radio

“Postponing the development of a digital terrestrial network is bad news for the Swedish radio audience,” comments Swedish Radio’s Director General Cilla Benkö following the government's announcement not to proceed with the transition to DAB+ in the near future.

“The FM network is now full and terrestrial radio will remain a vital service for a long time to come. IP-based radio, i.e. radio broadcast via the Internet, will also be important in the future, but it will not be able to replace the terrestrial network,” says Cilla Benkö.

“We will continue to broadcast in FM and I assume that this decision does not affect our task and our current activities in terms of scope, programming and quality,” continues Cilla Benkö.

According to Cilla Benkö, “In countries such as Norway and Denmark, where the digital terrestrial network is used with full force in a competitive market, we are seeing the radio audience increase both in terms of user numbers and listening time. This is because the radio audience has new and exciting stations to listen to. We are not seeing any corresponding increase in listening in Sweden.”

“Even now, we at Swedish Radio know that our audience do not appreciate certain clashes in the current selection of FM stations. For us, a digital terrestrial network is an opportunity to correct this. Furthermore, a digital terrestrial network is both cheaper to run and more environmentally friendly. Today's announcement means we are holding on to old technology, which in turn means there is the risk that in the long term Sweden, which is currently regarded as one of the leading countries in Europe when it comes to radio broadcasting, will lose that position as the audience opt out of an analogue alternative in an otherwise digital world,” says Cilla Benkö.

The Minister of Culture writes that it is still unclear how a digital terrestrial network would work. One of the Government's main reasons for waiting with the decision is that there are different views on how the radio's emergency preparedness can be maintained with a digital terrestrial network.

In recent years, Mats Åkerlund has worked with digital radio matters at Swedish Radio and has the following comments on the subject:

“Many countries in Europe are developing digital terrestrial networks for radio. In 18 months’ time our neighbour, Norway, will begin the transition from FM to DAB. NRK's emergency preparedness will then be transferred to the Norwegian DAB network which, according to the authority responsible, now has a better coverage in the country than FM and which is also considered to be as robust as FM. So it is likely that we will soon be able to look to Norway for answers,” says Mats Åkerlund.

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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