Friday, February 04, 2011

Norway Switches Off FM

Today the Norwegian Ministry of Culture published a 76 pages long report to the government, to be made into legislation, saying that FM will be switched off in January 2017.

In April 2011, an 8 page long summary was made available in English.

From the report (own translation): 
The Ministry has concluded that it is  beneficial to switch off FM in 2017. This will give the listeners almost 6 years transition time. The combination of a clear shut off date for FM and some years of transition time makes it more likely that the proportion of digital radio receivers will be high at the time of shut off. 

There are some criteria
  • The Ministry demands a coverage of NRKs radio stations that is equal to that P1 [the main radio station] currently has on FM by January 1st 2015. The commercial radio stations must reach at least 90% of the population.
  • Digital radio must include additional value to the listeners [such as extra radio channels or additional services].
  • Half of the listeners in Norway must listen to radio digitally [via DAB, Internet or the digital TV network] in some form during the day for the switch off to happen in January 2017. If this is not the case by the start of 2015, the switch off will be postponed for two years.
  • Inexpensive and technically satisfactory solutions for radio reception in cars must be widely available by early 2015 for the switch off to happen in January 2017. This includes converters from DAB to FM that ensures a stable and robust signal reception. If such equipment is not available, the switch off date will be delayed until 2019.    

Look to Norway
This makes Norway the first country to decide to switch off analogue radio. That is a smart move, as FM is long overdue as a technology and because FM maintains differences between audiences as it is way too costly to build in order to give everyone the same channel offering.

DMB/DAB/DAB+ is the open standard that ensures that radio as the last media goes digital in Norway. Broadcasters will now start to plan and build increased coverage taking digital radio coverage to 99.8% (the same as FM) by 2017.

What does this mean?
This means that 99.8% of Norwegians will get access to 13 radio stations from NRK - the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation by 2017, while using only half the electricity as FM needs today. And FM delivers only one (1) radio station to around 5% of Norwegians, two radio stations to another 5% and 3-7 national radio stations to the rest. Now, all 99.8% will get the same radio offering, the same 20+ stations.  That is both a tool for democratization and a vast increase in choice. At least 90% will get access to additional commercial radio stations.

This also means that NRK and commercial broadcasters cooperate on distribution of content, while still competing on the content itself. That radio goes digital also opens up for apps (for i.e. Android devices with DMB/DAB) that will combine and integrate both broadcasting and the Internet in innovatove manners. This will include the possibility to rate and discuss programmes and tie these comments and opinions to a time line that can be archived and indexed. It furthermore opens up for touch screen voting, shopping and competitions while watching TV or listening to radio.

Increased choice of devices
What has now happened in Norway is also a very clear signal to manufacturers of mobile phones, tablets, navigation equipment and kitchen radios. Norway is a small country, but it has traditionally been one of the trendsetters when it comes to media, mobile services and technology. Others countries will follow and prices of receivers will drop dramatically while products will become plentiful and more innovative.

But will this not mean that millions of devices will have to be thrown into the garbage? Not necessarily. You can first of all buy a little converter that converts the DAB signal into an FM signal so that it can be picked up by your FM receiver, without any physical modification. Second of all, we are 6 years away from the FM switch off date. The guarantee time of a gadget in Norway is currently 2 years. The Purchasing Act (kjøpslova med reklamasjonsrett) does however also state that the life expectancy of any device should be at least five years. The switch off date is more than five years away and 800,000 radios are sold in Norway every year. By the switch off date, most households will therefore have purchased a DAB radio anyway. Just make sure that your new radio will be a DAB radio (all DAB radios also have built in FM).

And comparatively speaking, to change your radio within 6 years is not a big deal. The average Norwegian buys a new mobile phone (that easily costs 10-20 times that of a DAB radio) every 18 months and a new computer every 2-3 years.

Better broadband connections
A bonus effect will also be that the broadband connections (both fixed and mobile) will become faster and more stable as a lot of radio and television viewing will shift from Internet distribution to broadcasting via DMB/DAB/DAB+. That improves quality of service for all Internet users out there and is good news for ISPs and telecom operators whose customers will notice a better service. In a perfect world, this should even lower the prices for broadband connections as current and future traffic is being taken off the networks.

International impact
This is furthermore a clear signal to other countries that governments must play a role in digitalization of radio. Creating transparent and clear terms will help broadcasters, device manufacturers, ISPs, telecom operators and end users to plan ahead for long-terms conditions and usage patterns. To make such a decision that FM will be switched off should also help take the focus off the destructive ping-pong style discussions about standards and help the verbal fighters focus on making great content and relevant services. The focal poimt should be how to best combine and integrate broadcasting of content with Internet services. With radio finally going digital, open APIs will enable endless of exciting opportunities for apps, loads of apps with killer content.

Which country will follow Norways example next, and when? The only thing certain is that many countries will follow.

Road tunnels
Norway is also a country of fjords and mountains and a rural population. That means a lot of road tunnels. Most of these have so far been without radio coverage, but this is set to change with the digitalization of radio. All tunnels above 500 meters in length will get DAB installed by the Norwegian Road Authority as the DAB system in the tunnels will double as an emergency warning system in case of accidents or fires. More than 500 tunnels, out of approximately 1,200 tunnels in the country, are over 500 meters long.

Read more about why it makes sense to go from FM to DMB/DAB/DAB+ here:
The 2800% Difference.
Help the BBC Save 74%.
DAB 20 Times Greener than FM.
The Impending Retirement of FM.
2034 Transmitters are 1484 Too Many.

And on the relation to Internet as a distribution channel:
Why MNOs Should Love, Not Loathe Broadcasting.
Why the Internet Won't Solve Everything.