The future is digital

Drive to Digital Now explains latest news on digital radio

Published:  30 March, 2015

By Phil Curry

However, that is not the case today, with hundreds of radio stations from the big players in the industry. In fact, digital radio is rapidly growing in popularity, to a point where the group behind the promotion of the medium, Digital Radio UK, is pushing now for the retrofitting of over 30 million vehicles in the UK, which offers the aftermarket an opportunity to take advantage of a growing trend.

The event started with a presentation by Ed Vaizey MP, Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy: "Latest listening figures have grown by 10%, the industry accounts for 1.5 million jobs. The increase in super-fast broadband has helped the digital industry. Radio faces challenges, in particular in the advertising market. It's not seen as a 'sexy' medium by advertisers but I believe it is undervalued in this area. It is well adapted to the digital age and we are now actually short of national capacity. We've seen the success of BBC 6 Music and also the launch of BBC Radio 4 Extra. We've also seen the increase in national commercial radio stations, from four to 14, with Absolute Radio 80s leading the way with 1.5 million listeners.

"When I last addressed a conference on this subject, some were disappointed that there was no plan made or a date given for a digital switchover, however we still need to see coverage and listening figures rise above those for AM and FM transmissions. When that happens we can start planning for a full digital radio future."

The MP also made a big announcement, highlighting the expansion of the digital radio network, which would be good news for drivers and therefore the uptake of digital units in older vehicles: "The planning is in place and we are ready to commence the biggest expansion yet. We are announcing today the building of 182 new transmitters across the UK as well as modifications at another 49 sites, all of which will be completed by summer next year. This will double the area of coverage and bring digital commercial up to the level of commercial on analogue signals. It will help create an even playing field for commercial stations to compete with BBC, and will increase coverage up to 90% of households, bringing about 8 million new listeners to digital. Motorists will also get access to digital on thousands of miles of roads.

Following on, Mike Hawes, CEO of the SMMT, discussed the UK car market: "Standard fitment in new vehicles is up to 61% and 14% have digital as an option. That's a tremendous achievement and shows the dedication that new car manufacturers have to the issue. In commercial vehicles, 22% of new offerings have a standard fit with 10% as an option.

"There is a wealth of companies, such as Celsus and Connects 2, that are developing products. Looking at the opportunity there, this is the area where large growth is expected. There are around 36 million cars on the UK roads, with around 3.5 million having a digital radio already fitted. That leaves 90% of cars to be converted. It's a multi-billion pound opportunity, with retailers stocking a number of options, while others are developing cheap and easy ways to have cars converted.

"It's important to have digital radio in cars, around one quarter of radio listening takes place in cars so it is a key component of radio listening. In a survey we conducted, 72% said that having driven a car with digital radio, they would not go back to a normal analogue option.

"The building blocks for a digital switchover are in place, which we find encouraging. There is cross-party support for digital radio so whatever happens at the election [in May] there is the knowledge that 'the train has left the station' and this agenda will receive continued support."

Digital radio is not just about national coverage. Local broadcasting needs to remain strong in order to ensure there are enough listeners to enable a digital switchover. Steve Holebrook, MD Terrestrial Broadcast at Arqiva, added: "We are still rolling out more of the BBC national transmitters, bringing the total UK coverage up to 97%, including a number of main roads. The digital one multiplex is also being increased with 90% coverage. At a local level there is quite a bit more to do, with two new multiplexes to be built. We have also introduced servicing linking on seven local multiplexes, allowing drivers to continue to listening to a local station as they move from one area to the other, so for example Heart Essex into Heart Kent. It means drivers don't have to retune as they leave one area. We have also increased local transmitters and built many more, which in addition to bringing new listeners within reach of digital radio, has resulted in 6,700km of new road coverage."

Finally, Laurence Harrison, Market Development Manager at Digital Radio UK, discussed the retrofitting of the UK car parc: "There's no doubt that the connected car and the digital dashboard is part of our future. We know that drivers love to listen to radio in their car and we also know that half of UK homes have a digital radio, so the offer to drivers to continue that listening experience is key.

"We know we need to work really hard to convert existing cars to digital. We know that a lack of digital switchover announcement in December 2013 was a blow to the hopes of the aftermarket in terms of increasing the uptake of retrofitting; however we are aware that certain criteria needed to be met and these too would have an impact. The increase in coverage across the country is vital, as well as the broader choice of stations, which will be increased with the new D2 multiplex.

"Now there is also a wide range of products that are available to convert cars to receive digital radio, backed up with an industry standard shown by the digital radio tick mark. We hope these will allow the fitting of digital radio to grow."

The drive to digital will continue to increase, especially as listening figures rise. The benefits are beginning to outweigh the problems, with better coverage, more diverse stations and more focus on local as well as national coverage. Being able to offer a radio fitting or conversion will add to revenue and profits and with 30 million potential customers, there's never been a better time to be prepared for digital.

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