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The digital radio bottom line: You've still got years to wait

You may have heard a lot of noise late last week about the unveiling of the Federal Government's long delayed blueprint for digital radio in Australia. Here's the main thing you need to know -- don't throw away your analog radio just yet, as you've still got quite a while to wait.

You may have heard a lot of noise late last week about the unveiling of the Federal Government's long delayed blueprint for digital radio in Australia. If you've been keenly awaiting the widespread introduction of digital radio here, then here's the main thing you need to know -- don't throw away your analog radio just yet, as you've still got quite a while to wait.

All of the hubbub aside, what was really lacking from the Government's announcements were any concrete dates to look forward to. Once the legislation's locked away, the Government has left it in the radio industry's hands to roll-out the service -- for both urban and regional areas. There was only one confirmed timeline -- for State capitals and major regional centres only -- the Government requires the radio industry to provide digital coverage similar to our current analog coverage within six years of first setting up digital services.

But to even get one widely available digital service running (as opposed to the trial ones being currently conducted in Sydney and Melbourne) may take as long as two to three years after all of the legislative and technical wrangling is fixed, something both the industry and Government readily concede. So that means if you're living in a big city, expect a long wait of six to nine years before you've got a digital service that's as widespread as your analog radio is now.

A wait of close to a decade may seem like a long time, but it's nothing compared to what may happen for many rural listeners. The Federal Government's digital radio plan contains no requirements for radio broadcasters to provide a service to the bush, only urging the industry to "commence trials of digital radio in regional areas so technical and other issues can be resolved".

The Government seems more than content to allow commercial requirements to shape digital radio's roll-out, hence the focus on setting up services in lucrative capital cities first. But the Government's move of not calling for any specific bush roll-outs, coupled with the fact that there's no switch-off date set for analog radio, means listeners outside of Australia's biggest cities and towns face a long wait in the digital dark. Let's face it, radio stations are here to make money. Why spend the money on upgrading a perfectly adequate analog radio service when the returns may be non-existent?

And speaking of money, we're crossing our fingers that the Government's decision to protect radio broadcasting incumbents from any new competition doesn't turn digital radio into digital television part two. Under the Government's plan, only current radio license holders will be given digital spectrum, with no new entrants allowed for six years. The conversion to digital will be an expensive process -- the industry's peak body, Commercial Radio Australia, has been saying so for years. With no new competitors allowed to enter the race, how much incentive is there really for broadcasters to spend even more money on coming up with compelling digital services?

Thankfully, the Government has not set the same restrictions on radio as it did with digital television when it comes to new content. It has essentially given the radio industry free rein to develop any new content or channels they want in digital, and will also allow them to broadcast this new content 'exclusively' on digital should they wish. The lack of new content is one of the oft cited reasons for digital television's slow adoption rate in Australia -- let's hope that despite the lack of competition, broadcasters take up the challenge of providing more content and services for the digital radio revolution.

What do you think about the Government's plan for digital radio in this country? Should there be a more concrete timetable? Is there any incentive at all for the commercial stations to get the ball rolling? What digital content do you think will be economically viable? Send us your feeback on cnet@cnet.com.au.