Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tuning into Ed Vaizey's vision of the future

Just had time to catch up on Ed Vaizey's digital radio switchover speech in full, which is a little bemusing.

First is that he works from the assumption that the future of digital radio must be DAB. Indeed, Vaizey only gives a few lines to the possibility that there's more than one way to get radio stations digitally to people's ears, and that is to sniff that the internet won't work:

First, radio’s digital future will not be delivered by the internet alone; at least not in the immediate future. There would be massive implications for capacity and energy use if all listeners listened to the radio on the internet.

Instead we believe radio’s future is a mixed ecology, with DAB, which is mobile, free at the point of access and cost efficient providing the ‘spine’ of the digital radio offering and the internet providing the added value. We have already seen a trend towards the integration of internet and DAB in radio receivers. We welcome this not least because it allows the listener to decide which platform best suits them.

This isn't very convincing - yes, there would be energy and capacity implications if people listened entirely to internet delivered online (along, as Vaizey fails to mention, with the 'how do you get it to people when they're on the A303' question.) But that doesn't mean it's a non-starter.

After all, there's energy and capacity questions about doing anything online.

And the integration of IP and DAB radios is a bit of a red herring - I nearly bought one of those myself, but went instead for a much cheaper IP/FM device. On the basis that why would I pay extra for a device which offered me no extra stations for the extra cost?

And what does Vaizey mean about the 'added value' services being on the internet? Is that an implication that the DAB stations add no value to British radio? Surely not? But if the added-value stuff is on the internet, why would people be listening to DAB - especially if they've bought a radio that can receive both?

"Rather than listen to the internet station which is really good, I'll tune into the DAB one that's a bit like it."

And where does Vaizey see these 'added value' propositions coming from - later on, when he's rubbishing the idea of dumping DAB for the more-station-for-your-bandwidth DAB+ standard, he makes this observation:
The benefits of DAB+ are primarily a more effective use of spectrum, but DAB already offers significant capacity for new services and there are only so many which the market can sustain.

So there are a load of added value services which will appear online, to be delivered in a way which burns energy and consumes bandwidth - but if you think it might be better to adopt DAB+ to distribute these extra services, suddenly they become too much for the market to stand.

Perhaps Ed should have held off making his speech about radio until he'd had a chance to think about his position for longer than the length of a Heart FM news bulletin.

The lack of coherence shines out of the key detail of the speech, too. The idea of digital switch-over:
On this point I should be clear. We agree that 2015 is an appropriate target date; a point at which all parts of the supply-chain can focus on. If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready we will support a 2015 switchover date.

Vaizey seems to have decided that DAB makes sense, and that migration from FM to DAB is the policy. He wants everyone working towards 2015 as the moment when that will happen. That is a clear, coherent position.

We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital, or to put it another way when analogue listening is in the minority.

At the same time he insists he won't switch off FM while it's still the main way people listen to radio.

So why, exactly, does he think people will choose to swap from FM to DAB without the push of the possibility that buying an FM radio now is a way to purchase an expensive future paperweight?

"We'll switch off the FM network at some point in the future, but not until everyone gets round to not using FM anyway" isn't really a policy, it's just an observation.