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The Prince Charles of broadcasting: Does DAB have a future?

Digital TV has a certain future ahead of it, but the same can't be said for digital radio, which is at crisis point. If something isn't done, DAB will die a death -- we think that'd be a real shame

In the next few years, analogue TV will die a death. It will be a well planned, gentle and carefully orchestrated passing away, but make no mistake, it will be stone dead by 2013, and digital TV will reign. Digital radio, on the other hand, has no pre-ordained date of succession. If something isn't done soon, it will become the Prince Charles of broadcasting -- waiting for years and years for its moment, until finally it becomes irrelevant.

The main issue facing digital radio is the millions upon millions of FM radios in homes up and down the land. Look at your own dwelling -- we'll wager you've got quite a few of them, perhaps even ones you're unaware of. Lobbing an FM radio in any old thing is commonplace these days -- your phone probably has one, your AV receiver does, most DAB radios do, as do many Internet radios.

There's little point in turning off analogue radio too. It occupies comparatively little space in the RF spectrum, unlike TV, so there would be no spectrum-auction bonanza for the government, funded by your mobile phone bill.

But the problems DAB has in the UK aren't all about technology. It's not much of a secret that the most successful DAB stations are BBC ones. This is purely down to economics -- the Big British Castle has much more money than the commercial radio peasantry, and it also has a massive radio archive to exploit. Commercial broadcasters have struggled to afford both FM and DAB licences, and in a recession, things are even harder.

So, is there any hope for DAB? Well, yes and no. If the government does nothing, its position is likely to be untenable in the long term. DAB will, essentially, be something the BBC does, but that everyone else has given up on. What DAB needs from the government is investment. Investment in a network of transmitters (DAB is woeful in many parts of the country) and investment in getting digital radios into use. Is it that unreasonable to pass a law that all vehicles sold in the UK must include a DAB radio?

There are alternatives knocking at the door. In the US, satellite radio has proven itself capable of providing a massive number of channels to home and in-car receivers. Or we could just forget about traditional broadcast methods, and switch to Internet radio. Mobile Internet access is, after all, more ubiquitous and more heavily invested in than any other RF system in the UK.

Internet radio would be the Prince William of our coronation analogy -- more modern and glamorous and a better fit for the age we live in. In the home, Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity make the whole process no more difficult than browsing the Web. As hardware becomes more sophisticated, it wouldn't even be possible for the end user to tell the difference between DAB and Internet radio. The advantages of Internet radio are significant too. For example, the Beeb offers a listen-again service over the Internet, but that's impossible on DAB. What's more, Internet delivery could mean significant quality improvements for audio -- the audio quality on DAB ranges from bad to utterly awful.

Internet radio also works for mobile phones, and there are apps for most major platforms that can make use of it. In cars, it's just as easy to include mobile technology to provide a service. And, if everyone played ball, receivers could roam across all mobile networks, making it much less likely you'll be without a signal.

One thing is certain though -- DAB needs a quality boost. With digital broadcasting comes great responsibility. It's too easy to cut the bit rate down to virtually nothing, and this is one of the reasons radio lovers aren't so keen on digital radio. Let's get the bit rate up, better coverage supported by the government and more DAB receivers. Either that, or let's try something else.