What is causing FM radio reception to drift


At first glance, the numbers in the brand new “Digitization Report 2015” read well: Ten percent of all German households now have a DAB + receiver - compared to 2013, this is a double. 7.9 million people - that is around eleven percent of the population - use DAB + in this country. The daily range is just over five million. Of these, 2.9 million listeners use the ARD's DAB programs, while around 2.2 million listeners use the private DAB offers. In each of the four million households equipped with digital radio, an average of 1.6 DAB + -capable devices are in use - there is also a trend towards second devices for digital radio.

Some actors are tempted by recent developments to make euphoric sayings again. “The cow flies - and it picks up the pace,” exulted Willi Steul, the director of Deutschlandradio, when faced with the new figures. But is this euphoria really justified? Conversely, the celebrated margin of ten percent DAB + households means that 90 percent of households have so far been unimpressed by the benefits of the new transmission technology. The digital radio still suffers from an acceptance problem. The advantages, however, have been well known for years. DAB + makes better use of frequency resources, enables more media diversity, has lower distribution costs, has higher sound quality than FM and offers better traffic information. But important players are still blocking themselves.

The reluctance of automakers.

Automotive companies, for example, could be a decisive driver. But for the time being they hold back elegantly. Just 1.91 million cars are equipped with DAB +, a meager percentage of just under five percent. "The product is obviously not as attractive as it would have to be to motivate the remaining 90 percent to buy a digital radio," says Volker Schott from the Association of the Automotive Industry. He referred to the lack of variety of channels. There are also gaps in network coverage. It is true that the supply level on the motorways is almost 100 percent. But more than half of all trips take place on the other side of the highways, and mobile reception there is only 85 percent. On the other hand: In Great Britain, an Eldorado of digitization, new cars are equipped with digital radio as standard. The criticism that DAB + is only available as expensive special equipment with several hundred euros in additional costs when buying a new car in this country let Schott roll off. Program and network offers are simply not attractive enough. As soon as these problems are solved, the car manufacturers would offer digital radio in series - "at least in the premium segment".
The device industry, on the other hand, thinks it has done its homework. "The devices are there, the acceptance is there," said Andreas Schneider, digital radio spokesman at the Central Association of Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry (ZVEI), at the same time head of the working group for digital terminals at Sony. Digital devices are the growth drivers in the audio sector, and in Europe they are even the strongest digital growth market ”, said Schneider:“ We are at our guns ”. Too bad that not a single DAB device was on display at Sony's IFA stand. Neither was there any mention of a recommendation by the ZVEI to its members to put DAB devices in the limelight.

Sensitive financing issues.

While some of those involved are still stuck, many hopes are directed towards the new “Digital Radio Board” recently founded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI). The board consists of 15 representatives from the federal and state governments, public and private broadcasters, state media authorities, the Federal Network Agency and radio and automobile manufacturers. The committee should finally give the decisive kick to the switch from VHF to digital radio, which has been discussed for decades.
Dorothee Bär, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI), addressed the delicate question of financing. “We understand that small local broadcasters cannot make the transition to digital distribution alone,” she stated. We know the demands to finance the simulcast phase of FM and DAB + from part of the proceeds from the last frequency auction. It is true that Bär professed to promote digital radio. However, she declined to make any concrete financial commitments. The auction proceeds from the “Digital Dividend II” are largely earmarked for broadband expansion according to the ministry's plans.
For Hans-Dieter Hillmoth, board member of the Association of Private Broadcasting and Telemedia (VPRT), one thing is absolutely clear: "The radio of the future will live through its local and regional roots." The rooting of the moderators, the interaction of the audience with the respective local heroes is decisive. Even Apple is just experiencing with its new music streaming service "Beats 1" that even a well-made global radio program doesn't really work. He advocated “getting the already existing strengths to fly”. The local, regional, nationwide programs should be able to be heard reliably and without interference via DAB +. Hillmoth then asked critical questions: Do we need national multiplexes? How many programs do we want in total? And how do you finance this? Refinancing is already "extremely difficult" for small and medium-sized commercial broadcasters.
Hillmoth brought a VPRT position paper with a clear commitment to the digitization of radio. Specifically, it states that "digital radio is not only successful with DAB Plus, but above all as web radio and other audio offers on the Internet". In order to guarantee the regional diversity of the medium, private radio needs a “regulatory framework that avoids damage to the radio genre and existential effects on local radio”. In order to ensure broadcasting via all devices, the association calls for the introduction of a multi-chip that enables transmission via VHF, DAB + and the Internet.

State regulation and public funding.

What could a “roadmap” for the path to digital radio look like in this country? “The switch will not succeed if it is market-driven alone,” stated Martin Deitenbeck, member of the Technical Committee for Technology, Networks, Convergence of the Directors' Conference of the State Media Authorities (DLM). It will not work without state regulation including public funding. However, digital also means “DAB + and Internet, ie hybrid” for media companies. What is the best way to bring local and regional radio into the digital world? The DLM man differentiated between a build-up phase and a migration phase. Clear criteria apply to the development phase: at the end of this phase, there must be 95 percent area coverage with at least two multiplexes. What is needed is a “quantitative added program value” compared to the current VHF supply, for this “at least 30 percent of the newly sold devices” would have to be DAB + compatible. Deitenbeck estimates that these three criteria can be met in the next two to three years. The development of a “measurement method that reliably verifies the actual use of digital radio” will probably take longer.

For the migration phase, among other things, FM frequency assignments should only be made to broadcasters who broadcast their programs via simulcast. In future, the VHF broadcasting of programs that have hitherto been broadcast exclusively digitally is also inadmissible - a swipe at the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation, which wants to broadcast its digital youth channel BR Puls on the VHF frequency of BR Klassik. The end of the migration phase means the end of simulcast operations and thus also the end of VHF.
Ulrich Liebenow, head of the ARD digital radio working group, can go along well with this. For him, what counts most is the content. With good technical coverage and an improved range of programs, a further increase in the acceptance of digital radio will not fail to materialize, he predicted. However, he admitted, the “enthusiasm for DAB + was also different within ARD”. Liebenow advocated the "short simulcast phase to keep costs down".
It is still unclear what funds the private broadcasters will use to finance simulcast operations during the migration phase. A conceivable alternative: Cross-subsidizing this task from the proceeds of the auction of terrestrial television frequencies, which was concluded in June. But the considerable additional income from the new broadcasting fee could also be a possible source of funding. Gerd Bauer, Director of the State Media Authority Saarland, can even imagine direct state support. After all, the nationwide cabling was also financed from tax revenues in the 1980s. If politicians want an “independent digital distribution channel for radio”, they must also create the material prerequisites for this. The private broadcasters should not be left alone with this task, because otherwise the “danger of the dual system drifting apart” would arise.
There remains the question of the sense and nonsense of a specific switch-off date for VHF. There has been one before. But in view of the hundreds of millions of VHF receivers in German households, it was secretly cashed back. Even among the public service broadcasters, this question is controversial. While the ARD is rather skeptical about such a deadline after previous experience, those responsible at Deutschlandradio can very well imagine it. DLR Director-General Steul: "I still believe that a planned switch-off date for VHF would be helpful." The year 2025 is mentioned again and again.