Saturday, December 18, 2010

21 Reasons Why FM is Almost History

FM is almost history. In more and more countries. Governments, broadcasters, receiver manufacturers and last but nowhere near least the listeners realize that radio is one of the most important medias we have and that it cannot be the only one that has not been digitalized with all related advantages. 

OK, so FM is about to retire. That might be about time after 77 years. But what will be the replacement?
NMTVs DMB transmitter being installed at Kolsås, outside Oslo.

That's an easy question to answer. DMB, DAB and DAB+ are all part of the same family of standards. This family is now the de facto standard out there for digital radio and mobile TV and is more than ready to take over the job from FM. It is also an open standard and available to all, as opposed to i.e. HD Radio which is proprietary and controlled by iBiquity Digital Corporation or DVB-H (Death of a Standard) which never made it as it, among other reasons, was controlled by telecom operators which acted as an gatekeeper between the broadcaster and the listener.

DMB, DAB and DAB+ will take over and secure a digital and future compatible radio transmission for more and more people. A lot of people will have to get new receivers or to modify the existing ones, but the switch offs are necessary and positive for radio as a media. Due to a number of reasons. I have listed 21 whys below.

DAB and DAB+ are for radio, whereas DMB is mainly for mobile TV (although it can also be used for radio). DMB, DAB and DAB+ are however all flavours of the same family of standards. They do in other words work together and make each other stronger through increased flexibility and versatility. I will hereafter in this blog post refer to them combined as DMB.

The 21 whys.
1) BECAUSE OF TRANSMISSION COSTS. DMB is much cheaper for broadcasters that can now save money that is better spent on producing more and better radio and TV programmes as well as new services on the Internet and mobile. Let me use Norway as an example. The public service broadcaster in Norway is called NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation). It is license funded and reaches 84% of all Norwegian every day. The FM network that covers Norway consists of over 2000 (two thousand!) transmitters. And these monsters love electricity! It costs an estimated 15 million USD a year to keep feeding them with electricity. To reach the same 98,5% of all Norwegians (there are 4,9 million of them) with DMB will require around 500 transmitters. And that is not all. FM is a very old technology, so if FM is to be continued longer than a few years most of the transmitters must be changed or upgraded. That would cost millions and millions.
Also relevant: DAB is 20 Times Greener Than FM. 

2) BECAUSE OF CHANNEL AVAILABILITY. These 2000+ transmitters ensure access for most Norwegians to only 3 out of NRKs 15 radio stations. Those living in major cities get up to 12 NRK stations via FM. With DMB all 15 radio stations from NRK and 10-15 commercial radio stations will be accessible to everyone. Why? Because a single FM transmitter can only broadcast one radio station. A single DMB transmitter can transmit ALL radio stations and mobile TV channels. 

3) BECAUSE OF USABILITY. To find a radio station on FM can take time. And to find out which radio stations that are actually available and how many there are of them. You will have to search for the right frequency, and most radio receivers do not show the name of the station. All DMB receivers have a screen where the name of the station is displayed. 

4) BECAUSE OF HARDWARE COSTS. It has so far been very costly for broadcasters to aquire the needed hardware (encoders, servers) to be able to transmit DMB. This has been a burden especially for local or small radio stations. We have now seen a change in this field through the introduction of software based coders and other equipment. The EBU (European Broadcasting Union) has showed how a radio station can be put on air through equipment costing less than 4000 USD.

5) BECAUSE SALES ARE UP. Sales of DMB radios in those countries where DMB has been introduced and properly marketed have been increasing since the introduction of the technology despite the lack of an FM switch off date. This is the case both in Norway and other countries such as the UK, Denmark, Switzerland and Australia.

6) BECAUSE TV DIGITALIZED WITHOUT PROBLEMS. Television was digitalized almost with virtually no problems or complains from users. There has not been a drop in numbers of television viewers after the switch over, and virtually everyone has purchased a digital set-up box required to receive terrestrial TV. Naturally very few people purchased digital set up boxes before they were told that they had to. The same message is now very clear also for radio, although with a longer time perspective.

7) BECAUSE OF MOBILE TV. DAB/DAB+ is, as mentioned in the introduction, part of the DMB standard. If you buy a DMB receiver (called MiniTV in Norway) you will also get access to all the DAB/DAB+ radio stations.

8) BECAUSE BROADCASTING IS BEST FOR THIS PURPOSE. DMB is a broadcasting technology which makes it possible for an indefinite number of people to listen to radio at the same time. As opposed to web radio where bandwidth is limited and has to be shared with everyone using the Internet for other purposes. (Why the Internet Won't Solve Everything.)

9) BECAUSE OF MOBILE RECEPTION. DMB works well in speeds up to 900 km/h (tested on planes). Such broadcasts can via only one transmitter cover vast areas. And the radio station will not disappear when driving as the technology automatically always staus on the same station (given that there is coverage).

10) BECAUSE OF AN INCREASINGLY GLOBAL MARKET. More and more countries are introducing DMB. In 2011 there will be broadcasts on air in around 40 countries, covering over 300 million people. So this is not only about a few countries with weird ideas. 

11) BECAUSE IT IS ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY. New DMB receivers consume less power than FM receivers. So do the transmitters (see point 1). Less power consumption is good for the environment and lowers your electricity bill. And it provides longer battery life in the case of a battery powered receiver.

12) BECAUSE OF SOUND QUALITY. This has been a controversial subject as a lot of people opposing DMB has spent effort critizising the sound quality. But feedback from listeners show that most of them prefer the digital sound. As it is crisper, they say.

13) BECAUSE LISTENERS WANT TO GET RID OF FINE TUNING. Forget the days when you have to fine tune into the right frequency in order to get a clear signal. With DMB you get a list of the available channels, by name, and just pick the one you like. It will thereafter stay on the same radio channel, even if you are driving, until you decide to switch.

14) BECAUSE OF PROVEN SUCCESS. We have seen an analogue radio switch off before. Radio via AM was switched off in Switzerland two years ago and replaced by DMB. There are now more listeners via DMB than ever via AM.

15) BECAUSE OF SOLIDARITY. Why do we need DMB when we can listen to radio via the Internet? The Internet cannot supply everyone with radio. It is not wide enough. Even less so when the household is far away from the switches that are located in towns and cities. You can currently listen to radio via the Internet without any problems because very few others do it. If everyone has to, no one can. Solidarity also applies to media consumption. More on related issues in an earlier blog post: (Why the Internet Won’t Solve Everything.)

16) BECAUSE YOU GET EXTRA INFORMATION. You are via DMB given information on which station you listen to, and this is usually expanded to also provide information on which song that is playing, who is in the studio and breaking news.

17) BECAUSE OF ADDITIONAL SERVICES. There are vast possibilities for additional services when you can combine broadcasting with a return channel (i.e. the Internet). Some examples:
a) Touch screen shopping (touch the sun glasses of Robbie Williams (on an album cover or a music video), change the colour and buy them)
b) Voting (vote for your favourite Idol singer, or on which song to play next).
c) Social media (like or dislike programmes and share your opinion with your friends).
d) On demand programming (chose to watch or listen to the next episode of your favourite show (downloaded or streamed via return channel) after an exciting broadcasted cliffhanger).
e) Touch the screen while listening to music on the radio to see the cover, read news about the artist and to buy and download the song or the album. 

18) BECAUSE OF THE SELECTION OF RECEIVERS. There are around a thousand different DMB receiver models out there, and counting. Most of them lack a big screen, and are only for DAB/DAB+. But the standard being mature and internationally used makes it much easier for receiver manufacturers to produce receiver without taking big risks. And a big markets make receivers cheaper. Are we looking at a win-win situation? It certainly seems like it.

19) BECAUSE RADIO SHOULDN’T BE THE ONLY ANAOLGUE MEDIA LEFT. It just doesn't make sense to leave the oldest media we have, an the second most popular after broadcasted television, as the only one that has not gone digital. Being the oldest doesn't mean that it should be the only old fashioned one, without any possibilities for extra services, additional information or interaction with other media. 

20) BECAUSE DOUBLE DISTRIBUTION IS WASTEFUL. Currently most radio stations broadcast via both DMB and FM. That is costly and a waste of resources. Broadcasters need to be able to plan ahead.

21) BECAUSE THE GOVERNMENT UNDERSTANDS ITS ROLE. The government sees the need for letting broadcasters have a future that can be planned and budgeted. And they understand that some people will not get DMB receivers as long as there is an offer via FM. The government is now taking the responsibility and is helping contribute to a better and more versatile future for radio.

Did I forget any reasons? Or are you not agreeing? Comments are welcome below.

Do keep in mind that radio will not and should not be available only via DMB. I have earlier argued that combination is the new king, and I believe in a future in which distribution of radio and TV will occur on many platforms, including via the Internet. But radio is a medium which is best enjoyed by most people live, and live transmissions to many are superiorly performed through broadcasting.

"Impending Retirement" 
What does impending retirement mean, by the way? Well, FM was patterned almost 80 years ago, and as is the case with everyone who has done a job for ages and who still loves their job, it is kind of difficult to make them quit entirely (nor do you always want them to). My guess is that the first countries will switch off FM around 2015. Great Britain has already indicated such a date, whereas other countries such as Norway, Netherlands and Germany has this high up on the agenda. On the other hand, it only took around two years from Norway decided to switch off analogue TV until the first transitter was silenced (the switch off was finalized in December 2009), and they didn't lose a single viewing minute by doing that. So why not speed up the process? Listeners love quality radio and will be happy to contribute to more money being put into programming than into the distribution of it.