Analogue radio given 10-year stay of execution as the UK U-turns on DAB digital future

Great problem of our time solved: Classic FM won't have to rebrand as Classic DAB

Analogue radio station licences will be extended for another 10 years, the UK government has said – entirely reversing plans to shut off FM and AM radio stations in favour of DAB digital radio.

Commercial radio stations will be allowed to renew their existing, close-to-expiry licences for another decade, meaning your old banger's tape deck-cum-stereo will keep working until at least 2032.

The U-turn "ensures there is no disruption for loyal listeners of treasured FM and AM radio services such as Classic FM, Absolute Radio and TalkSport over the next decade," boasted media minister John Whittingdale, a one-time Minister of Fun* now reduced to tinkering with the airwaves.

The move is likely to cause some chagrin at spectrum regulator Ofcom, which only a couple of months ago was brandishing DAB licences at local radio stations in the hope of tempting them off their potentially lucrative FM and AM spectrum.

Although yesterday's Ministry of Fun* announcement said digital now makes up 58 per cent of British radio listening, the real problem here is the slow pace of change. DAB and successor DAB+ were supposed to replace AM and FM. Problems rapidly became apparent with DAB: instead of degrading gracefully as analogue radio signals do on the fringes of coverage areas, it goes dead altogether – or pollutes the listener's ears with a weird undertone of bubbling swamp sound effects.

Signal propagation (coverage) can be a problem as well with DAB compared to ye olde analogue's wiggly waves, snaking their way up, down and around hills and valleys, or through short road tunnels. Some have speculated that coverage policy is based on reaching homes and not the roads where most Britons listen to radio, a notion that seemed plausible [PDF] a few years ago. In 2016 Ofcom said: "Local DAB services are estimated to reach around 90 per cent of homes and around 76 per cent of major roads," with national BBC services reaching about 7-10 per cent more than that.

It took nearly 20 years from the launch of the first DAB station to hit 50 per cent of listeners, despite heavy government-backed marketing and promotion efforts.

Although the trend seems to be accelerating, extending analogue stations' licences won't achieve the stated aim of freeing up a valuable chunk of spectrum that could be resold by Ofcom for far higher licensing fees than at present improving the radio listening experience through newer technologies.

As we reported back in April, analogue radio isn't going the way of analogue TV any time soon.


*Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It follows that the Cabinet minister with responsibility for DCMS is the Minister of Fun. ®

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