Thursday, April 16, 2015

Media: World's first FM switch-off confirmed for 2017

Thorhild Widvey, Norwegian Minister of Culture, has confirmed that
FM switch-off will happen in 2017. (Photo: Ilja C. Hendel)

And it is official. Norway will switch off FM in 2017, as the first country in the world. The government, represented by the Minister of Culture, announced today. The replacement? Digital Audio Broadcasting, usually referred to as DAB+.

That makes today a day of celebration for the broadcasters. They have long been working with listeners, the government, retailers, the car industry and each other to achieve five demands set up by the government in 2011. All five had to be fulfilled by January 2015 to ensure a 2017 switch-off (see bottom). They were all delivered upon by good margin, yet it was up to the government and the Ministry of Culture in partiuclar, to formally decide.

Today she did.

- The digitization of radio opens up for a far larger diversity of radio stations that will benefit listeners all over the country. To listeners this means more diversity, a more differentiated radio offer, noisefree reception and a range of new functionalities. The digitization does moreover open up for greater competition and increased possibilities of innovation and development. Where the FM network can only accommodate five nationwide radio stations, DAB already offers 22 nationwide radio stations with room for another 20 or so. Over half the population does furthermore already have a local offering on DAB, with a big potential for many new local radio stations, Thorhild Widvey said in a press release today. She is Minister of Culture.

The press release also pinpoints that FM costs are eight  times higher per radio station than for DAB. And Widvey could witness that as many as 57% of Norwegians listened to digital radio daily in this year's first quarter, up from 56% in January/February.

NRKs Director-General,Thor Gjermund Eriksen,
here at Radio Days Europe in Milan earlier this year.  
- This is an important day for everyone who loves radio. The minister's decision allows us to concentrate even more of our resources on what is most important, namely to create high quality and diverse radio-content to our listeners, said Thor Gjermund Eriksen who is Director-General of Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) in a separate press release.

Cars are important
DAB now covers 99.5% of the Norwegian population, and 94.9% of roads. FM cover the same population, but only 88.5% of roads (the average of two coverage models are being used for road coverage figures), according to Norwegian Communication Authority (NKOM).

- Most people can now access digital radio, and it is about time to introduce modern technology for this media too, as we did for TV in 2009. Given that the other demands have been met, Norway is ready to switch off FM, Torstein Olsen said in a statement following the launch of the official measurements. He is General Director of NKOM.

A switch-off is important to consumers before upgrading to DAB. 51% of car owners said in a recent study initiated by Digital Radio Norway that they will not install a DAB adapter in their car until FM is actually switched off. 23% of radio listening in Norway happens in the car, and it is important to cover all the long road tunnels with DAB too. The Road Authority or the police can in case of emergencies override all the radio stations in the tunnel in question to provide potentially life-saving info. The Road Authority is currently installing DAB in all tunnels longer than 500 meters with a certain amount of traffic, including Lærdalstunnelen, the world's longest road tunnel with its 24.5 kilometers.

Enough simulcast
Norway has the world's biggest DAB network, given its
challenging topography. NRK alone has 765 transmitters
that are needed do ensure 99.5% coverage. The private
broadcasters need 190 transmitters to reach 91.8%
of the population. 
The switch-off in 2017 eliminates an additional two years of simulcasting in both FM and DAB+. In Norway, to do so is a costly affair. NRKs 2,000 FM transmitters alone cost tens of millions of Euros a year to run. The switch-off will happen geographically according to a plan agreed upon by the radio industry and approved by the Ministry. The county of Nordland will switch-off first on January 11, 2017, whereas the northernmost counties of Troms and Finnmark will be the last ones to lose FM on December 13, 2017.

But who cares, anyway? Radio listening is declining. Right?


Radio listening has in fact not been higher since 1991. Every Norwegian now listens to the radio for 100 minutes daily, up from 90 minutes last year. A lot of that can be contributed to more radio stations, better tailored radio stations, better coverage and clearer sound. Those countries that have not yet started digitizing radio might want to reconsider.

The five criteria
1. NRK needs to have the same coverage via DAB as Norway's biggest radio station NRK P1 has via FM. All NRKs 13 radio stations now reach 99.5% of the population, the same as NRK P1 via FM. All other FM stations have less coverage.
2. Commercial radio broadcasters need to reach over 90% of the population via DAB. They now reach 91.8%.
3. There must be extra digital value. A lot of extra radio stations ensure that. Additional digital services such as broadcasting of photos, playlists and info on programmes further ensure that this criteria is reached.  
4. There must be technically satisfactory and inexpensive solutions for car radio available, and half of the 428 municipalities and all 19 counties must have an offer of retrofitting adapters. All counties and at least 80% of the municipalities deliver on this criteria and the Norwegian Media Authority is happy with the selection of available car radio solutions. They say that there is a wide range of DAB+ adapters on the market, that prices have declined and that there are several new features. 74% of new car models are available with DAB+.
5. At least half the daily listeners must listen to radio digitally. 57% do.