UK digital radio switchover compulsory once 50% penetration reached

Last week the UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, made a significant speech to the UK’s ‘Drive to Digital’ conference, outlining the digital radio switchover plan which will force consumers and broadcasters to go digital once 50% of the population has bought a digital radio set. Already 14 million digital radio sets have been sold in the UK. While Australia does not have yet have such a firm switchover timetable, our policy makers will be watching developments in the UK closely to see what happens next.


The minister made the speech at a conference in the BBC’s new Broadcasting House building in London, saying “I cannot think of anywhere more appropriate, or with a more iconic image, to talk about the future of radio and the opportunities it holds.”


Tackling the question Why Switchover to Digital Radio, Vaizey countered those who question why the Government is pursuing a digital radio switchover plan, saying:

You will no doubt have all heard the negatives of digital radio, there has certainly been no shortage of column inches dedicated to the subject. They often suggest that DAB is an out of date technology, that coverage and sound quality are inferior to analogue and listeners are already happy with what they’ve got so why change?

There are of course elements of truth in all these statements. However, it is all too often presented as a one-sided argument.

There are also many positives. The UK leads the world in the take-up and consumption of digital radio, we have exciting digital-only content and the leading manufacturers are UK companies.

To date over 14m DAB sets have been sold. While around 27% of all radio listening is already to digital platforms and all indications suggest that this will continue to grow, particularly online.

Let me be clear at this time that when we talk about digital radio, we mean all digital platforms. Radio’s strengths are its flexibility, its ability to integrate with other platforms and devices. Radio will be a multi- platform medium in the future. But radio does need its own digital platform, one which provides certainty and is free at the point of access. That is why DAB is important.


In the UK there has been a lot of discussion that radio switchover will be too difficult because “listeners are far more passionate about their radios than they are about their TVs, and they are resistant to change.” But the minister assured listeners that they would not lose any of their favourite stations:

Of course radio listeners are passionate about their stations, but to be clear we are not proposing to take away their favourite station, we are planning to give them more. I would not be here if I did not firmly believe that digital radio provides people with not just a better listening experience, but also the ability to engage in content, services and functionality, which has never been available to them before. Perhaps even making them more passionate


When will switchover happen in the UK?


The timing of any switchover will be determined by the consumer. We have been clear that no date for switchover will be set until 50% of all radio listening is already to digital.We have also said that DAB coverage at national and local level will need to be comparable to FM.

Of course we realise this has the potential to create the almost perfect ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. Without investment in content and coverage the listeners are less likely to change, without listeners such investments are difficult for commercial companies to make.

We have always been clear that all parts of the supply chain needed certainty in order to move forward in unison. This is why the 2015 target date was set, a point to which we could all work. But it was always just a target and it would be wrong for all of us to try and force a switchover on listeners until they were ready, hence the switchover criteria.

So while the 2015 target date looks ambitious, it still has an important purpose. It will be an evidence based decision, drawing on everything we have learnt and the decisions we have made through the Action Plan. This decision would provide clarity for all elements of the market, unlock funding for new coverage build-out and present a clear message to consumers that switchover is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.


Last year when the minister launched the digital radio action plan he set out a list of barriers to radio’s digital future which he called the 5 Cs: Content, Consumers, Coverage, Certainty, and Cars.  UK broadcasters are working to “pull down the barriers on all of these Cs” according to Vaizey:


Rest assured we understand the importance of improving coverage for consumers and manufacturers. Ofcom continues to work closely with the industry to establish the exact technical means required to provide for a switchover. The good news is we believe it to be both achievable and affordable.


We currently see a greater variety of digital radio services than ever before. The rebranding of BBC 7 and the BBC’s wider commitment to digital only content is showing a positive reaction from listeners.

The national commercial multiplex is full of services such as Absolute 80s and 90s, Jazz and Planet Rock.


So now I would like to talk to you about digital radio and cars. Primarily, I want to express my thanks and recognition of the way car manufacturers have engaged with digital radio. Unlike in some other European countries we have not legislated to force car manufacturers to adopt digital radio, choosing instead to work with the SMMT  [development group]  and yourselves to agree a way forward together.

SMMT have reported that the proportion of digital radios in cars and commercial vehicles “as standard” has risen from 5.3% in September 2010 to almost 18% in September 2011. This means that over a quarter of a million vehicles have been sold with digital radio in the past year.


In the UK, Ford has announced that all their vehicles will have digital radio fitted as standard by the end of 2012, with the new Ford Focus already hitting the streets with digital radio. A range of other vechiles also already have digital radios in them, including the VW Beetle, the Vauxhall Tiguan and the Saab 9-5 Sports Wagon.

With 20% of all radio listening occurring in vehicles, the digital push for cars will have “a significant impact on reaching the government criteria of 50% of radio listening being digital before a switchover” says the minister. There are also many aftermarket products available to convert the UK’s 34 million vehicles already on the road to digital radio.


Of those who already have digital radios in their cars, a recent consumer survey found that 77% would recommend DAB to others and 65% stating they would be disappointed if DAB was no longer available. The majority of those who responded stated that they would not buy a car in the future without DAB radio.



Vaizey closed by saying: “Let us see digital radio as an opportunity. An opportunity for our customers, our listeners and ourselves and not be shackled by the barriers of today but see the potential of tomorrow.”


The full speech is available at the link at the bottom of this page.