DAB vs. internet: vested interests limit progress

30th Jan 2009 | 13:32

DAB vs. internet: vested interests limit progress

Digital radio critic claims consumers being mislead

Why is the government keen to back DAB?

Following our recent interview with leading digital radio specialists Pure Digital, TechRadar recently spoke with digital radio enthusiast, Steve Green (Editor of website digitalradiotech.co.uk) – a vociferous critic of DAB and the BBC / radio industry's digital radio strategy in general.

TechRadar: So what are your thoughts on the recent interview we ran with Pure Digital? Specifically, what do you think about internet radio and how it relates to DAB radio in the UK?

Steve Green: One thing that Pure Digital's version of 'the future of radio' failed to mention was that the audio quality on internet radio is either already far better than on DAB, or it will be in the near future. For example, the BBC's on-demand radio programmes on the iPlayer, around a third of all UK commercial radio stations' internet streams, and over 8,000 internet stations on shoutcast.com are already at higher audio quality than on DAB, and the BBC's live internet radio streams are about to leapfrog DAB in terms of quality in the next two to three weeks once they switch to using the AAC/AAC+ audio codec.

So internet radio provides better quality audio than DAB?

Yes. Internet radio has the big advantage that the streams can use modern audio codecs, such as WMA and AAC/AAC+, whereas DAB is stuck using the prehistoric MP2 codec that dates all the way back to the 1980s. But the main reason why so many internet radio streams now provide higher quality than DAB is because internet bandwidth has become dirt-cheap over the last couple of years. Furthermore, because the price of bandwidth is linked to Moore's Law, the price of bandwidth is expected to continue falling for another decade or more. So the quality of internet radio will only improve over time, and it's basically inevitable that internet radio will outclass both DAB and DAB+ in terms of audio quality.

What about content? Is there not an argument that 'quality content is king'? That broadcasters need to make money? And, by extension, that internet radio is only ever going to cater for small 'niche interest' groups of listeners?

It's important to remember that all DAB stations have Internet radio streams anyway, so I completely disagree with the view that DAB is for big stations and the internet is just for small niche streams. I use internet radio to listen to both.

The DAB supporters [such as Pure and the BBC] face a bit of a conundrum here, because for the last few years they've mainly been promoting DAB on the basis that it provides greater choice. But a typical DAB listener can only receive around 35 stations (people in London receive more stations, people out in the sticks usually receive less), whereas there are 10,000+ internet radio stations, and thousands of on-demand streams, such as the radio programmes on the BBC iPlayer and podcasts. There's no contest: internet radio wins hands down on choice.

But it isn't just about the number of stations, it's the breadth of choice that's important, in my opinion. Commercial stations on DAB try to attract as many listeners as possible, because that's how they make their revenue. But that means that there will never be stations on DAB covering smaller niche genres, whereas internet stations cover every niche genre imaginable, because there are so many of them.

Where does the government's Digital Radio Working Group (DRWG) fit into all this?

The DRWG was made up of representatives from the BBC, commercial radio and the DAB receiver manufacturers, and they recommended to the government that everyone should be pushed towards buying DAB, but they didn't include internet radio in the long-term plan for digital radio at all. And the government supports the DRWG's recommendations, so we'll see the BBC step up its saturation TV advertising for DAB, but internet radio won't receive any promotion, even though they know full well that if they did promote internet radio as well as DAB they'd be able to switch FM off sooner, which is their ultimate goal.

Why is the the government so keen to back DAB?

Dab1It's all down to protectionism: the broadcasters would like everyone to listen to digital radio via DAB, because DAB offers the least amount of choice, so their stations will face the least amount of competition, and they think this will lead to them losing fewer listeners than if a lot of people began listening via the internet. And the big receiver manufacturers have the UK DAB market all sewn up, so they'd very much like the status quo to continue as well.

So you think it is a case of vested industry interests against the interest of the radio listener?

Absolutely. And the losers, as ever, will be the consumers. In my opinion, if the BBC provided the public with impartial advice about what both DAB and internet radio had to offer, I think internet radio would end up becoming the biggest digital radio platform by the time FM is switched off. Over the last year, people have shown that they love the BBC iPlayer, and I just think the internet is the way most people would go given all the facts.

How have they tried to justify their decisions?

The DAB supporters come out with a whole host of spurious reasons in an attempt to justify their decisions. For example, Pure Digital's Colin Crawford used the example of eight million people listening to Terry Wogan in the mornings, which he claimed would be prohibitively expensive to deliver if everyone listened via the internet. In reality, if everyone did listen via the Internet, the ISPs would all implement a technology called IP Multicast – some ISPs have already implemented it, such as Virgin Media on its new cable network, and BT is implementing it on its new '21CN' network that's being rolled out nationally at the moment.

The way things work at the moment, using 'unicast', is that the BBC would have to deliver eight million streams – one per Terry Wogan listener. Multicast, on the other hand, eliminates all duplicates of the same stream, so the BBC would only have to deliver one stream to each ISP. Once IP Multicast has been implemented, the cost of distributing internet radio streams for the broadcasters is effectively free, which I'm sure the BBC would be able to afford! And ironically, even using today's inefficient unicast technology, it is still 10 to a 100 times cheaper to deliver a radio station with the same number of listeners via the internet than it is to transmit via DAB.

But surely there is an argument that there is already a healthy number (10 million or so) radio listeners with high quality audio DAB radio devices that let them easily access a good range of digital stations? So it makes sense for the industry as a whole to work towards providing them with a decent service?

The DAB supporters have always claimed that the audio quality on DAB is okay. But they would say that, wouldn't they? However, a Norwegian professor carried out a listening test, and the results of that showed that 98 per cent of stereo stations on DAB in the UK are being transmitted at lower quality than on FM! As DAB is meant to replace FM, I fail to see why that's acceptable. This may not be a big deal on small portable radios, because they're not capable of reproducing hi-fi sound. But the problems with DAB's audio quality are readily apparent even on relatively cheap micro systems, let alone anything more expensive than that.

In my opinion, Pure Digital tried to downplay the importance of audio quality, even going as far as to say that it's somehow less important to listeners than scrolling text! But if you look at the chart here [top right], which shows the results of a market research study that Ofcom carried out, which asked analogue radio listeners what they thought the main advantages of digital radio were, this shows unequivocally that people who hadn't bought DAB yet thought that the main advantage would be better sound quality.

Why is DAB associated'digital quality sound'?

Dab2In my opinion, the manufacturers use the term "digital quality sound" to make it sound as though DAB provides CD quality sound, so it's a blatant attempt at conveying the message that DAB provides high audio quality. In reality, that couldn't be further from the truth.

Then there's the claim that the BBC originally began promoting DAB on the basis that it provided higher quality, but as this didn't prove to be very successful the BBC decided to launch new stations instead, and it was this that led to DAB sales taking off. I'm sorry, but that simply isn't remotely true. The BBC had always intended to launch new stations, and there's an article on the BBC website from September 1998, which shows that the BBC was already planning on launching five new stations then, and that was around two years before the first DAB receivers went on sale!

The reason why DAB sales took off was simply because of the saturation TV advertising the BBC lavished on its favoured digital radio system. Over the period from 2002, when the BBC launched its five digital-only stations, up to 2005, the BBC broadcast 19 TV advertising campaigns for DAB. However, as the chart here [top right] shows, as soon as the BBC temporarily stopped broadcasting any TV ad campaigns for DAB in 2006 and 2007, DAB's year-on-year sales growth plummeted, and the sales growth – which is an indicator of how well an emerging technology such as DAB is doing in the marketplace – has continued to slide ever since.

So why was the quality of DAB radio reduced? That still seems to be a key reason for the anti-DAB sentiment that still exists today.

The BBC decided to add five stations to its national DAB multiplex when there was only room to fit two stations in, so the BBC simply chose to degrade the audio quality in order to fit the new stations in. The sad fact is that the reason why DAB receives so much criticism is that there was never actually any need for the broadcasters to degrade the quality in the first place. Development of the AAC audio codec began in 1994, and it was standardised in 1997. So if the BBC executives in charge of planning DAB in the 1990s had actually listened to what the BBC R&D engineers were telling them about the advantages that AAC had to offer, they could have upgraded the DAB system prior to the big launch in 2002, and the audio quality on DAB would have been good today, not poor.

Do you think DAB would have faired better if they had upgraded the system prior to its launch?

Definitely. Ironically, DAB's current woes are largely attributable to the fact that they didn't upgrade the system when they had the opportunity to do so in the 1990s. Other European countries ended up turning their noses up at using DAB precisely because the technologies it uses are so out of date, which is what led to DAB+ having to be designed in 2006. This led to DAB effectively being a UK-only market in terms of sales, which in turn led to the car and mobile phone manufacturers choosing not to integrate DAB into their products, because they will only integrate Europe-wide standards, not something that's effectively limited to just the UK.

DAB on mobiles and in cars

Dab3The radio industry looked upon getting DAB included on mobile phones as being the holy grail, because people replace their mobile phones so frequently that it would massively increase DAB take-up as a whole. It would also boost sales of DAB chipsets, which would lead to lower prices on all DAB products, so sales would increase due to that as well. Alas this wasn't to be, and I'm afraid that they only have themselves to blame for the predicament they now find themselves in. But because they act in such a selfish manner, there's no imminent danger of me feeling a huge amount of sympathy for them, either.

Surely if consumers and radio listeners want to tune into internet radio, they'll just do it – whether or not the BBC and the DAB manufacturers want them to or not?

Sure. And it is possible that the DAB industry might end up getting a second helping of just desserts, as internet radio could become widely available on audio products, and the DAB industry wouldn't be able to do much to stop it. The reason why this might happen is largely due to Sony's announcement at CES 2009 (the Consumer Electronics Show) that 90 per cent of all its products would be able to connect to the internet by 2011. Once Wi-Fi is added to audio devices, it would only cost a few pence extra in manufacturing and licensing costs to allow these products to receive internet radio. In comparison, it costs a few pounds to add DAB to a product. And if Sony is planning on adding Wi-Fi to so many of its audio products, you would expect its rivals to add Wi-Fi to more of their products as well. So it's possible that there will be a very wide range of internet radio-enabled audio products available within the next two to three years.

Internet radio has also already achieved DAB's holy grail of being included on mobile phones as well, because smartphones are capable of receiving internet radio streams via 3G or Wi-Fi, and the 'Nokia Internet Radio' application is fitted as standard on most or all of Nokia's smart-phones today. Mobile broadband is also proving to be extremely popular with the public, and we've even seen the first internet radio car stereos demonstrated at the CES in the last few weeks. If internet radio does go on to become a major digital radio platform despite the DAB industry's attempts to thwart that from happening, that really would be the ultimate in karma coming round to bite them on their a**.

And you have to say they would deserve it if it happens.

DAB DAB+ radio digital radio internet radio Pure Digital
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