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The end is near for analogue radio... Part 3, satellite Freeview online and DAB
Around the turn of the millennium, radio found new ways to get from studio to listener: satellite, cable, two new forms of terrestrial and over the internet, but the real revolution has been in listening choice.
As each transponder could carry six associated audio feeds, UK Gold had BBC World Service and Radios 2, 4 and 5 Live in mono, and Living carried Radios 1 and 3 in stereo. In addition, Virgin Radio, which was a mono AM service could be heard in stereo from the Astra 1 satellites.
For this reason, it almost came by accident that on 1st October 1998, the new Sky Digital television service would also include lots of digital radio stations. With an abundance of capacity and the radio stations could take advantage of the MPEG2 layer III audio system (aka "MP3") and provide many radio stations in high quality stereo. The inclusion of radio stations in the channel numbers also meant that listeners could tune into radio stations without any difficult tuning issues.
The BBC started test transmissions of DAB in January 1990, and its national DAB multiplex went on air in 1995.
The DAB service was thought of as a way of supplying superior quality sound for the existing five BBC network radio stations. However, the very high cost of receivers, around £800 back in 1998 (£1200 in today's prices).
The BBC launched digital radio in the UK in 1995 followed by national commercial multiplex operator Digital One in 1998.
However, as early as 1992, the BBC had published "Extending Choice", which proposed that the BBC stop chasing mass audiences, and provide high quality services to audiences that the commercial broadcasters were not. This first camge to fruition in September, 1998 ( BBC News - ENTERTAINMENT - BBC unveils digital TV) when the BBC News 24, Choice and Knowledge channels were announced, and that DAB would soon have BBC Parliament (an audio service), the Asian Network and a side-channels to back-up Radio Five Live.
Since then local DAB (digital radio) commercial services have become available offering non-national BBC Radio and ILR on a local basis.
This was a strategic decision to remove DAB from being a "sound quality" proposal to one of "listener choice". However, DAB radios still cost £300 (£420 at today's prices).
So, it was quite fortunate for these stations that the big digital terrestrial balls-up that had been ONdigital (see ONdigital Timeline - ONhistory for more) resulted in the BBC having two DTT multiplexes to fill when the replacement service Freeview launched.
For quite some time, the second multiplex only carried BBC FOUR and Cbeebies, and there were plenty of bits left for all of the BBC national stations to be carried to most homes in very high quality.
As the new BBC radio stations came on air, they were also added to the digital satellite platform.
From 15 November 1999 the first national DAB commercial multiplex "Digital One" launched. This now adds another 15 national stations.
For those who are not happy with the provision of more services at lower bitrates, most UK radio stations can be listened to online at high quality. The unexpected popularity of listening to radio on Freeview has allowed many homes to sample stations that would otherwise have been exclusive to DAB. Now when people consider a DAB purchase, many "new" stations are already familiar.
DAB, with just two national multiplexes provides 25 stations. There is space reserved for a second national DAB service, which could add another 15.
In London, there are an additional three DAB multiplexes adding brining the total stations to over 55. Central Scotland has 45 stations.
Over the last few years, the BBC and commercial operators have been making the DAB local radio network match the FM local radio network - Ofcom - Annex B. Local DAB build-out plans. There are still a few areas of the UK to cover - notably Derbyshire and WestWales - but both in car, and in home, DAB reception is as good as or better than FM.
"Transmission will be cheaper, too. DAB can be transmitted at lower power than today's FM and AM signals yet with no loss in geographic coverage, which means less cost to the broadcaster (and less power consumption means DAB is more environmentally friendly than conventional FM and AM)." - WorldDMB - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
The current plans are to announce a rolling switch off of VHF for the BBC and commercial broadcasters: the switch off will occur areas where digital radio use is highest. Community radio stations (which are not profit making) will continue on FM.
Now in 2013, you can grab a DAB radio from your local supermarket for £20 ASDA Portable DAB Radio - Radio - ASDA direct - one sixtieths of the cost in 1998, there is little standing in the way of radio choice being available in every UK home.
Michael : There is still no excuse for Radio 4 going into MONO on DAB most evenings, depriving licence fee payers of programmes they have paid for to be made in STEREO (such as Radio 4's flagship drama THE ARCHERS, FRONT ROW, ANY QUESTIONS & THE FRIDAY PLAY), but these RADIO programmes can only be heard in STEREO on the TV and on line and on FM. If FM is switched off most car drivers will only be able to hear these programmes in MONO. If BBC Radio 4 could broadcastb these programmes in STEREO up to and including 2012, why not now, especially when their former controller Jenny Abramski promised on Feedback with Roger Bolton that this would never happen (I still have a tape with her saying this).
The analog switch-off discussion has gone eerily quiet. Is that good news or bad news? I tried a portable DAB+ radio in the new car. FM reception was better, even though the FM/AM radio in the new car is substandard. I am mildly surprised that so many similar music stations are evidently still commercially viable, both on FM and DAB. I had secretly hoped that the market would sort them out, thereby allowing high bitrates to the survivors.
I've just moved to Trowbridge and find that DAB is very poor downstairs and only reasonable upstairs. It is poor in the back garden and fair at the front! FM is fine in all areas of the house and gardens.
I personally prefer the sound quality provided by FM analogue services, but then I have a musical history since joining a choir at the age of 8 some 60+ years ago!