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Lord Donoughue on DAB
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So, why has the propaganda campaign to impose DAB on the British listening public failed? And it has. Most of the British public do not like DAB sound and most are content with analogue FM. That is the reason. It is not a failure of communication. That is what Stalin said whenever people complained that they were starving in the Russian countryside: "It must be a failure of communication and propaganda". No, that was a failure of food production and this is a failure of technological production.

There is not the faintest prospect of reaching the target of 50 per cent coverage by digital – in 2013, remember – which is the prelude to the 2015 switch over. Yet still some in Whitehall, the BBC and the radio industry – from which we have heard distinguished representatives this evening, not that they wish to do this – wish to impose digital sound broadcasting on British listeners, effectively by abolishing the superior FM competition. This is how the East German communist regime boosted sales of its notorious Trabant car; it excluded superior competition. DAB, though not DAB + , is in my view the Trabbie of broadcast sound. The propaganda campaign for DAB often referred to the proposed digital radio switch over as "upgrading". I noticed that my noble friend Lord Gordon used that word, though I know he was referring to television and not radio. Perhaps in the propaganda this was a misspelling of "degrading" as far as broadcast sound is concerned. I congratulate the Communications Committee on explicitly refusing to accept that spin.

There are of course advantages to digital broadcasting that were widely canvassed and have been mentioned tonight. The main benefits are extra functions, the possibility of interaction, wider station choice and ease of tuning. Those are true, yet as the Ofcom research has shown, there is no evidence that radio listeners want these facilities. All the evidence is that radio – especially music –  are content with the present FM. Ofcom's published research shows 91 per cent public satisfaction with FM. Only 3 per cent want access to the extra radio stations that DAB gives them.

Digital campaigners also argue that the existing FM  infrastructure needs costly renewal, while the report says it will cost £10 million per annum for 20 years. That is peanuts compared to the cost of switching to digital. There is the cost of expensively extending the digital multiplexes and of wantonly forcing listeners to dispose of some 100 million analogue radios, costing consumers an estimated £6 billion. I say to my noble friend that these sets would resent being called useless. My Revox does not think it is useless; it is excellent but threatened with redundancy and resents that. There is the cost of abandoning the excellent FM  transmission equipment, including that at Wrotham, which serves London; of spending all the money on hundreds of new digital transmitters, many in dense urban locations; and of abandoning the FM  spectrum, which cannot be sold. In sum, this venture offers more stations, which the public do not want, with poor audio quality, at huge cost to the consumer, who was never consulted. Better communications and advertising for DAB will not change that.

This venture for DAB radio was launched partly at the wish of the radio industry, which saw benefits in switching off bigger FM stations. To the radio industry it offers probable savings of around £30 million. To the BBC it offers a possible way of coping with the advance of internet radio, which has been so well spoken of, though I doubt whether it will succeed. I greatly sympathise with what my noble friend said about that. To the previous Labour Government it no doubt had the image attraction of appearing modern. Nowhere was the interest of the listening consumer taken into account.

This good report and the government response seek commendably – though late in the day – to address that consumer factor, but nowhere is the mediocre quality of DAB sound addressed. The committee rightly rebukes the previous Government for not having done – or certainly not published –  a cost-benefit analysis on this project. We can understand why they did not produce any analysis of the balance of costs and benefits as the costs are high and the benefits are few, at least to the public radio consumer. Certainly, there will be few benefits for some decades to come.

So what do we do now, finding ourselves in this mess on digital radio but not TV? The report is impressively coy on this basic problem. It hints correctly that, like the Irishman at the crossroads – he may have been a relative of mine – it would not start from here. But we are here and the committee gives some excellent pointers to the Government on how to clarify the future. However, to me it seems too defeatist in accepting that FM radio has no future and in accepting the unrealistic dates of 2013 and 2015 for switch over.

I believe that the new coalition Government, and their promising Minister, Ed Vaizey, should be more radical and brave. For a start, they should read and accept the recent report of their own advisory body. the Consumer Expert Group, entitled Digital Radio Switchover: What is in it for Consumers? As I said, there is a short answer to that. It contains an attack on the digital plans and accuses the radio industry of attempting to "bully" the public into adopting DAB. It states that the only consumer benefit in the switch over would be the ultra small stations, to which few would listen.

For the future, in addition to studying carefully what my noble friend Lord Maxton said, I suggest three conclusions which might have been in the report. First, the Government should maintain indefinitely the national – not just local – FM radio platform, which a large proportion of the public enjoy and prefer. The Consumer Expert Group states categorically that, "there are no economic or technical barriers to FM continuing as a broadcast platform".

Secondly, since we are down the digital radio path, the UK should switch to using the superior DAB+ technology in radio receivers as soon as possible. Finally, the switch over date for transmissions should be delayed until, say, at least three-quarters of all radio listening is by DAB+. I see no virtue in meeting a bad target date. I am encouraged by what the Government have already said in that area. Such a delay would allow a steady and measured transition to a more realistic date without steamrolling the poor consumer in rapidly throwing away his excellent FM equipment We should allow him or her to enjoy their existing superior sound for much longer.


9.24 pm



 

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