James Cridland

Norway switches from FM to DAB+

Facts, coverage and opinion

Norway “switched off FM” last week and switched to DAB+. I was interviewed by a number of outlets, and helped others with background including BBC News. Here are the notes I’ve been using, written up as a full piece which aims to be even-handed and clear about Norway’s decision.

A few facts

  • They didn’t turn FM off across the entire country: only in one Norwegian state, Nordland. It’s the beginning of a year-long process nationwide.
  • They didn’t turn FM off in Nordland, either. It continues for many smaller local stations. But those stations account for less than 5% of total radio listening (TSL). If you’re a radio listener, your favourite station has probably moved to DAB.
  • This isn’t a switch-off of broadcast radio. DAB is broadcast radio, from transmitters on hills to receivers with antennas, just like FM. And, like FM, it is free. Broadcast radio has a tremendous future. (The internet is too expensive).
  • This isn’t bad news for commercial radio. Instead of one mostly-national commercial station in Norway, there are now upwards of twenty. This is a massive levelling of the playing field.
  • This isn’t bad news for NRK, the public service broadcaster. They save US$24 million by turning off FM, which they claim is “8 times” more expensive than broadcasting DAB. They’ve promised to plough this money back into programming. They’ve also launched a slew of additional stations.
  • For radio listeners, this means that instead of seven or so FM stations, they have a choice of around thirty on DAB+. Reception is better than FM (the reflections from mountains actually make the signal more robust). All stations will be retransmitted in road tunnels. They’ve even spent time ensuring good reception at sea.
  • Nationally, 74% of Norwegians already have a DAB set. However, 26% don’t. Stations are also available via DTV and online, but there is a potential that radio loses listeners. That’s a concern, and we should carefully examine the effect of #FMexit.
  • While DAB+ is installed in the vast majority of new cars, only 25% of total cars in Norway have it installed. Adaptors are available, but many may not bother. Only 23% of radio listening is done in-car (compared to 44% in the US). If listeners discover alternatives to radio in-car, will they transfer to the home too?
  • One newspaper poll said the majority of Norwegians are against it (yet 74% own a DAB set already). Read with caution. “See this free thing you use? Would you like it taken away?” is a question probably not ever going to get a positive reaction. “Do you miss listening to Norwegian folk music and those old friendly presenters who used to be on? Would you like a station just for you?” might have delivered a different result. As in many other countries, newspapers are owned by competitors to radio.
  • The UK uses a mix of DAB and DAB+. The Norwegians only use DAB+. DAB+ signals can be broadcast on existing transmitters, but need receivers that cope with DAB+. Most sets on sale deal with DAB+ without a problem. Older receivers may not. UK infrastructure can deal happily with DAB+. More info

How it was covered

The NAB posted a negative blog post, probably destined for their members rather than the rest of the world. The central point — that there won’t be an FM switchoff for DAB in the US — is correct: DAB frequencies are military ones, and the infrastructure requires a collegiate, co-operative broadcast marketplace that doesn’t happen in the US for a number of reasons. It’s a shame the NAB missed a chance to highlight the benefits of broadcast vs IP (surely the opportunity for the National Association of Broadcasters). Instead, it appears to have retreated to a “not invented here” paranoia.

What’s my view?

The Norwegians have done an excellent job at publicity and promotion of DAB+. I’m concerned at the in-car situation, though, and would watch the listening figures carefully.

In my mind, a government-mandated switchover is undesirable for commercial broadcasters. A market-led switchoff should be encouraged in those places where a switchover is desired (the UK, Switzerland, etc). Commercial broadcasters should be free to come off analogue, partially or wholly, when they feel it makes economic sense, safe in the knowledge that the analogue frequencies will not be available for re-use by other broadcasters.

The UK might hit trigger point next year. The government should carefully evaluate learnings from the Norwegians before rushing to a decision. Bear in mind that the next General Election is in May 2020; and that Conservative constituencies are mainly in rural areas with poorer coverage.

Most importantly: radio broadcasters are not in the business of running FM transmitters. They exist to serve audiences on whatever platform their audiences wish to use. And, for a growing number of people, that’s DAB.