Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TruthSeeker: Ten Myths About DAB

It seems the anti-DAB crowd are being just as vocal as they ever were.  But are they making any points?  Is there any truth to what they say or is there more spin and propoganda than actual facts?

To find out, I've been reading the site Ten Myths of DAB, which claims to "...explain why the Government is intent on steamrollering this through and the secrets they are keeping from us."

The site actually manages to get off to a good start...

"The more one looks into the whole question of the proposal to switch off the FM transmission network for national stations, such as Radio's 3 and 4, the more one realises there is no compelling reason or mandate to do so as far as the consumer is concerned."

Perfectly correct, actually.  There is no compelling mandate as far as the consumer was concerned.  In the same way, there was no compelling mandate for the consumer to switch from Sky analogue to Sky Digital, until Sky decided they were going discontinue analogue transmissions in 2001, 11 years before the analogue terrestrial network was switched off.  Sky created the mandate, just like the Government did with the analogue terrestrial television network, and they want to do with analogue radio. 

But after that good start, the site goes downhill very quickly...

"The more I researched into this, the more apparent it became that because of this lack of mandate, with the exception of one report, every single document from the Government or Ofcom regarding the FM switch off is redolent of hype, marketing spin and smacks of desperation.  As an ex-Marketing Director, I can smell it a mile off.

Yet the Government remains firmly committed to doing this.  So why the steamroller?

The answer is simple.  The commercial radio guys want to make more money.

At your expense."

Hmm.  Are you so sure about that?  If that were the case, the commercial radio powerhouses would be far more committed to DAB than they really are.  Their support is lukewarm at best, and in fact, at worst, they are downright hostile to DAB.  And they have been ever since 2008, and a report from Grant Goddard of Enders Analytics, a report incidentally I wrote about at the time.  It was a hit job worthy of Fox News on a Democratic candidate, not an analysis at all.

So, if this was about the commercial radio companies, they would not be as opposed to it as they are.  That is one big mark against the site.

So let's examine each of these 10 myths that the site talks about.

"Myth 1 - DAB is being consumer led."

Now, this is actually kinda interesting.  This is the first myth, yet nowhere in the piece do they talk about consumers actions.  They don't mention that in the past 3 years, DAB reciever sales have been consistent at 1.9 million units per year.  Nor do they mention that DAB accounts for over 20% of all radio listening in this country, 4 times as much as Digital TV or the Internet, although internet listening is growing at a much faster rate, partially because of the availablity of good, solid, internet radio apps, such as TuneIn, UK RadioPlayer. BBC iPlayer Radio, and RTE Radio Player.

What they do mention is the change in emphasis in the Government's 50% target, from 50% of all listening on DAB, to 50% of all listening on Digital.  That change in emphasis had not gone unnoticed by many, even within the industry. 

The other thing they mention is transmission costs for the radio stations, and how they've gone up.  Well of course they've gone up.  Think about it, if you were transmitting on FM only, and now you're transmitting an FM signal, a DAB signal and two online streams, one for home use and one for mobile use, then transmission costs are bound to have gone up.  They even quote from a 2010 House of Lords Communications Committee report that quotes figures from the RadioCentre.  RadioCentre is the UK's commercial radio industry trade body., and this is the quoted piece.

"...RadioCentre told us that total transmission costs have risen from £50m a year, five years ago to £70m, of which £40m is for analogue transmission (FM and AM), £20m for DAB transmission and £10m for other forms of transmission, such as DTT and satellite..."

So, naturally they extrapolate from those figures that analogue transmission is more expensive, and that the commercial radio industry wants to shut down analogue. 


That £40million is spread between far more analogue transmitters than DAB's £20million is.  More than double the amount of transmitters.  Think about this.  From the Redruth transmitter, the following signals are transmitted on FM...

BBC Radio 2 on 89.7 FM
BBC Radio 3 on 91.9 FM
BBC Radio 4 on 94.1 FM
BBC Radio 1 on 99.3 FM
Classic FM on 101.5 FM
Pirate FM on 102.8 FM
BBC Radio Cornwall on 103.9 FM
Heart South West on 107.0 FM

...and the following singals are transmitted on AM...

BBC Radio Cornwall on 630 AM
BBC Radio 4 on 756 AM
BBC Radio 5 Live on 909 AM
TalkSport on 1089 AM
Absolute Radio on 1215 AM

...and each one of those signals is transmitted by a separate transmitter, on the Redruth mast.  13 stations, 13 transmitters.

In constrast, on that same Redruth mast, there are just 3 digital transmitters...

South West Digital Radio on 218.64 MHz, aka block 11B.  That block transmits 7 stations.
Digital One on 222.06 MHz, aka block 11D.  That block transmits 14 stations.
BBC National DAB on 225.64 MHz, aka block 12B.  That block transmits 12 stations.

3 transmitters, 33 stations.  Surely less transmitters to transmit more stations makes it cheaper?  No, it doesn't.  DAB transmission is much more expensive than FM or AM transmission, and not every AM and FM station currently broadcasts on DAB.  In fact, stations like The Breeze have stopped transmitting on DAB, simply because they are not making enough money to justify transmitting on DAB.

So much for that argument.

Overall, the 'myth' that DAB is consumer led is in fact, only Half True.  Consumer demand can be described as steady, both for the equipment, and the services.  And in a time of recession, where spending on discretionary items such as consumer electronics has gone down significantly and led to the collapse of Comet, DAB's steady performance is more encouraging than discouraging.

Myth 2 does not have a title, but is all to do with the sound quality.  Certainly this topic has sparked many a debate between audiophiles, who want the quality of signal maintained, and others, who prefer more choice, without necessarily maintaining the quality.  Unless enough frequencies are released to ensure every digital transmission has a minimum of 128 kbps, and that looks unlikely, you are never going to satisfy the audiophile.  I have to rate this myth as Mostly True.

"Myth 3 - DAB sales are growing year on year."

Having read this through, I have to rate this as "Pants On Fire".  Here's why.

They reference the DWRG Interim Report, but notice they don't say when that report was.  This is what they quote from that report...

"The take-up of DAB digital radio over the last few years has been impressive.  By the end of May this year sales of DAB sets exceeded 7 million, with this figure predicted to rise to 9 million by the end of the year."

Those are not yearly sales figures, by the way, but cumulative.  Then, they manage to make the dumbest of statements.

"These figures are irrelevant unless one asks the questions "Are those digital radios in daily use?" and "Are those digital radios using FM or DAB?".  If a local straw poll I carried out locally is anything to go by then the answers would be "No" to the first one and "FM" to the second."

Would a local straw poll be carried anywhere else other than locally???  That's pretty dumb in itself.  Then to ask if that straw poll would be anything to go by... oh dear.  No, a straw poll has little value other than being very circumstancial and very flimsy.  Remember, DAB represents over 20% of all radio listening in this country.  1 hour in every 5 hours is heard through DAB.  Those DAB radios are definitely tuned in DAB for a not insignificant amount of time, that much is obvious from the evidence.  Does it matter whether those radios are in daily use or not?  Not really, that's perhaps the silliest question of the two. 

Whilst it would be accurate to say that DAB have not grown in the past 3 years, and are in fact slightly down on 2008, the lack of economic context to the whole question, ie that we are and have been in a recessionary period since 2008, and sales of discretionary items like consumer electronics have plummeted to the point that one major retailer of consumer electronics collapsed under a mountain of debt, so fundamentally undermines the whole point, as to render the whole 'myth' as totally irrelevant.  It's totally busted.

"Myth 4 - Radio listeners want more choice."

This is another one, where there is evidence both ways.  Ask most people upfront if they want more choice, and most will generally say no.  However, the evidence also says that when they have more choice, they tend to use it.  This myth is rated as "Half True."

"Myth 5 - There is a robust Cost Benefit Analysis in favour of the FM switch off."

This one is more difficult, because there is a lack of evidence either way.  An Ofcom commissioned report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2009 was only released after being heavily redacted.  Now you can go with the "no smoke without fire" principle if you like.  I will point out that tyres can spin and produce smoke, but will never catch fire, rendering the whole principle useless.  You have to look at this from the same kind of perspective as you would in Court.  And what's more, you have to apply the same principle of "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" to both the pro and con arguments.  And if you do that, neither argument satisfies Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.  This is a classic "Not Proven", a verdict that is only rendered in Scottish courts.  So, due to the lack of conclusive evidence either way, the only way I can call this is "Plausible but Not Proven."

"Myth 6 - DAB has no interference"

This is another myth, that I have to rate as "Pants On Fire", because although it looks more sensible, again the evidence paints a totally different picture.

Unless you are practically right next door to an FM transmitter, nobody hears an FM signal without some background interference.  No AM signal is interference free either.  A decent DAB radio, placed in a good reception area, gives a signal that is free of background interference. 

Now granted not everywhere has decent DAB reception.  The same applies for FM.  Just spend some time listening to FM on the train.  Reception comes and goes like crazy, and white noise can drown out signals.  DAB suffers in the same way, but instead of white noise, you get this burbling sound that is actually worse than white noise, and just as frustrating.  But that is the physics of radio transmission, not a problem with DAB as a platform. 

So, on the basis that the basis for the myth, is totally undermined by simple science, this is rated "Pants On Fire."  It's totally busted.

"Myth 7 - The analogue infrastructrure needs £200million of capital expenditure."

This is another myth, that actually has very little evidence at all.  The figure does seem to have been plucked out of thin air.  £200million over the next 20 years, to maintain the FM network?  That figure could be an overstatement, or it could be an understatement.  Transmitter parts do need replacing from time to time, and transmitters do need regular maintenance, so that figure actually could be a gross understatement.  But without more evidence, it's impossible to answer conclusively either way.  This one too is "Plausible but Not Proven."

"Myth 8 - The Government are doing this to sell off the FM spectrum."

This is one of the easiest myths to bust.  This is all they write on the page for that myth.

"If they are then it's wishful thinking because no-one (including PwC) have identified any commercial purpose, other than audio, for the FM spectrum were it to be freed up."

I may suggest that whoever wrote this hasn't been paying attention.  Mobile phone networks are always looking for more frequencies to expand their calls and data services and increase capacity.  Those companies that produce hand held walkie talkies have been lobbying for the frequencies to be used for local communication networks.  Even computer network manufacturers are looking for frequencies for Wi-Fi and other wireless network technologies.  To say nobody has identified any commercial purpose other than audio, is totally wrong.  This one is busted and gets the "False" rating.

"Myth 9 - Digital radio listening is really taking off."

Apparently, the writer of the website, does not understand mathematics.  He tries to claim that an increase from 13% to 26% is an increase of 13%.  In fact, it's an increase of 100%, as the figure has doubled.  Similarly, he claims that going from 19% to 21% is an increase of 2%.  In fact, it's more like 10%.  And with DAB listening going up by around 10% in 2012, well, it's not exactly taking off, but it is growth.

On that very simple basis, he so totally undermines his whole argument on that myth, as to render other points he makes on that page as moot and irrelevant.  This is another "Pants On Fire".  It is totally busted.

"Myth 10 - No such thing as a digital radio switchover.  No such thing as a DAB switchover.  It is an FM Switch Off."

Okay so if that is the myth, why do you then contradict yourself by then writing...

"The DCMS and Ofcom have been very clever here and a masterclass in subterfuge.  Rather than talk about the Great FM Switch Off, for that is what it is, they started talking about the DAB Switchover."

You just busted your own myth, with your own words.  And by the way, factually, AM still hasn't been switched off yet, and there are still a number of stations across the country broadcasting AM signals.  So it wouldn't be just an FM switch off, but an analogue switch off, but it would only be a switch off, if there were nothing to replace it.  But there is Digital Radio, so it is a switchover.  "Pants On Fire" rating again, and this one is double busted!

Overall, this is just another example of spin and propoganda against the DAB platform, based upon half truths, and unprovables.  Not one of the ten myths stood up to scrutiny and came away unscathed.  The closest was myth 2, but with the demand from various companies for frequencies, the likelyhood of broadcasters being allowed to expand the number of frequencies that they have available, is so small as to be virtually impossible, which took the edge of something that was otherwise pretty accurate.  Unfortunately for the anti DAB community, this site is so full of misinformation as to be useless.  As a site, it gets a "Mostly False" rating.  What truth there is here, is often so far out of context and over extrapolated as to make what is written very very shaky.

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