No FM Radio Switch-Off in Nordic Countries
Christer Hederström discusses the future of FM and DAB+ in Scandinavian radio.
A digital transition has been on the agenda in Sweden since 1995 when the public radio Sveriges Radio (SR) took on the DAB technology. After seven years of pilot broadcasts, the politicians put a stop to the extra funding for SR. Since then there has been a low level of activity with DAB broadcast and reaching 35 percent of the population but few listeners. The present center-conservative government has opened for digital radio development but it should be on market terms without state subsidies.
The FM radio network is regarded as being modern and robust. There is no consumer demand that would justify setting a switch-off date according to the Ministry of Culture.
PTS — the telecom authority — would rather see on-air radio to continue on FM with the supplementary addition of Internet radio (which of course already is digital).
Now, the Public Service Commission, in its recent report to the government, has suggested that SR should be able to make a transition to DAB+. For this, SR will need extra funding for several years while having to broadcast in parallel on both FM and DAB+ until full coverage (99.8 percent) of the population is reached. Also SR must finance extra production resources if the number of public service channels is multiplying from four national channels to perhaps 12. Additionally, after 20 years in operation, the terrestrial DAB-transmitter network has to be upgraded or replaced.
However, the commission has noted that DAB+ is not suitable for small-scale broadcasting. It is suggested that there should not be any decision setting a date for an FM switch-off until a proper solution is found for community radio. This is a position similar to the political decisions in Denmark and Norway. If small-scale radio stations prefer to stay on FM they can do that. The news about a possible FM switch-off in any Nordic country is misleading. It is all about public service and the major commercial networks.
This standpoint very much reflects the joint position taken by the pan-European organizations Community Media Forum Europe (CMFE) and AMARC Europe. In a letter to the European Commission 2011, the organizations took a firm stand for preservation of the FM band. In case of a digital transition the preference is DRM+, which is frequency-efficient and will enable a significant increase of the number of channels possible to locate in the FM-band. It is also a more transparent and less complex system than the multiplex model of DAB.
For more than two years successful DRM+ test trials have been made in Brazil, Germany, India, Italy, Slovakia, the UK, among other countries. Both public service radio and community radio have been involved. Now, CMFE has initiated a test trial in Sweden planned to start in January 2013. This has been organized in cooperation with the Stockholm Community Radio Association with assistance of the Digital Radio Mondiale organization and some of its member companies.
The Swedish PTS is positive to the trial and will assign a proper frequency in the FM band. A requirement is a frequency suitable for simulcast i.e. an analog and a digital signal in the same channel space. The PTS is looking forward to the results of the trial. In connection to the trial in Stockholm there are discussions to put up similar tests in Oslo, Norway, involving a local commercial broadcaster.
And what about the fourth major Nordic country? As Finland has waived the international right to Band III for sound broadcasting, DAB+ is not on the agenda. If, in the future, Finland wants to digitalize on-air radio another system has to been found in lower frequency bands; Band I or Band II (FM).
FM radio is still going strong and the future of digital radio is still very undecided. But in the Nordic countries DRM+ is now positioning itself as a digital alternative.
Christer Hederström is based in Stockholm, Sweden and is a media advisor for the radio and television sectors. He is also a board member of the Community Media Forum Europe in Brussels; a Board member of the Radio Academy in Sweden; and a board member of Public Service Council in Sweden. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.