Insights into Editorial: Why Norway is discarding FM for digital radio
Norway is all set to become the first country in the world to start shutting down its FM radio network in favour of digital radio, a bold move watched closely by other countries around Europe.
FM or Frequency Modulation was invented in the United States 1933 and made widely available in the 1950s. Digital audio broadcasting (DAB) was developed by researchers in the 1980s.
Norway, generally a technology-friendly country, has been preparing for the switchover for years — DAB and FM have existed side-by-side since 1995. There are currently 22 national digital stations, along with around 20 smaller ones.
Why Norway is shifting to DAB?
- Part of the reason Norway is the first country to switch away from traditional analogue transmission is to do with topography – it is expensive to get FM signals to a small population scattered around a landscape riven with fjords and high mountains.
- The issue of cost savings is also involved. It is estimated that there will be around 200m Norwegian kroner (£19m) savings a year. The savings let broadcasters invest more in programming, and give listeners a better and more reliable sound that will be more easily receivable in a country with lots of mountains and rocks.
- Digital audio also offers better quality without all the fuzziness between stations.
- Digital allows for more stations. Norway only has five stations on FM, compared to 26 on DAB.
What is digital radio? Is it better than AM and FM radio?
Digital radio is to normal radio what digital television is to your standard analog TV. It’s the most significant upgrade to happen since the introduction of FM in Australia in the 1970s and the leap in quality is comparable to FM versus AM. Digital radio works by turning sound into digital signals for transmission and then decoding them at the other end using digital radio receivers; the result is close-to-CD-quality sound output.
While AM/FM radio quality can suffer from interference caused by signals bouncing off walls, buildings, hills and other structures, digital radio receivers have built-in technology that cleans and filters transmissions, making interference practically non-existent. The downside is that you either get signal or you don’t.
As well, digital radios are also usually easier to tune — instead of fiddling with a dial to find the strongest frequency for a station, listeners choose a station by name from a menu, with the digital radio automatically locking on to the appropriate frequency at a push of a button.
Why DAB is good?
- Supporters of Digital Audio Broadcasting say DAB offers better sound quality and more channels at an eighth of the cost of FM (frequency modulation) transmission, which was first launched in the U.S. in 1945.
- The authorities also say DAB offers better coverage, allows listeners to catch up on programmes they have missed and makes it easier to broadcast emergency messages in times of crisis.
- Along with the song, DAB also lets radio stations broadcast other digital information like which song is currently playing, the name of the artiste, album art etc, which can be displayed on the screens of phones or cars.
- Along with being much clearer, digital signals are also easier to tune, as users don’t need to browse through a frequency range in order to locate their favourite radio channel. They can instead just pick the radio station or broadcast they want from a menu.
Why are some people against this move?
A poll in December 2016 found 66% of Norwegians are against shutting down FM, with only 17 %in favour. There are varying reasons for this:
- While around three quarters of the population have at least one DAB radio set, many motorists are unhappy as only about a third of cars currently on the road are equipped. Converting a car radio involves buying an adaptor for between 1,000 and 2,000 kroner (110 to 220 euros), or getting a whole new radio. Hence, they feel the move is expensive and the shift is premature.
- While the switchover is expected to reduce the cost of transmission for broacasters, it is the listeners who will pick up much of the cost of the transition.
- Many fishermen for whom radio is vital, are also said to be ill-equipped. Critics have warned that emergency traffic messages – often vital in Norway’s inclement winters – may go unheard.
- Although DAB has the potential to provide better sound quality than FM, in reality, governments may end up filling the DAB bandwidth with as many channels as possible which may divide the bit-rate (the rate of data transfer) among these broadcasts. As a result, if the DAB bandwidth is choked, it may suffer a drop in quality.
The process will be watched closely in Europe by Switzerland, Denmark and Britain, where listeners have taken strongly to digital radio and which all plan plan to shut down FM radio broadcasts at some point in the future.
The UK has not set a date but has said it will switch off the FM signal when 50% of all radio listening is digital – the figure is currently over 35% – and when the DAB signal reaches 90% of the population.