DAB radio has been a shambles. The government now admits this
Let's just say it out loud and stop kidding ourselves. The UK's digital radio - DAB radio to be precise - is about as bad as new technology gets. The good news is that the coalition government could be about to admit as much.Years after most of...
Years after most of the population noticed its ridiculous drawbacks, Communications Minister, Ed Vaizey, is about to make a heavily-trailed speech in which he will apparently abandon the doctrinaire approach of his predecessors that the 'digital switchover' has to happen by the arbitrary date of 2015.
Instead, reportedly, he will not even set a date until at least half of the population has embraced the ill-starred DAB radio sets, which might be 2015 or it might not.
“We can’t impose this on an unwilling public, no matter how persuasive the business case,” runs his yet-to-be-given speech.
If accurate, this is good government. Instead of imposing technology on an unwilling and unconvinced population that is by and large not dissatisfied with the analogue radio system currently in use, the decision will be made by the public. That might not be a good recipe for all technologies but it looks like a good one for radio.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step to sorting it out. And boy did DAB turn out to have problems on every level imaginable.
The sets were expensive and are still about double to triple the price of an equivalent analogue set. They were, and still are, slow to turn on, and being more complex, break down far more often. I have never in my life heard of someone having to replace a faulty analogue radio, but DAB sets head for the recycling centre at a quite disgraceful level. I have personally had three break down.
Then there's battery consumption, so poor in some cases that they have to be tethered to the mains, defeating the welcome portability invented with the transistor radio half a century ago. Every time you change the batteries, the whole radio has to re-discover every frequency and favourite station. Tedious.
Sound quality can be pathetic, not helped by iffy reception (don't believe the nonsense about error correction), tinny speakers and low bit-rates. Some of the sets are so complicated they need manuals to operate. A radio with a manual? You read that correctly.
No wonder many manufacturers had to bundle FM radios with their DAB models. At least that avoids almost all of the problems mentioned above. Car manufacturers still consider DAB an expensive optional extra which tells its own story.
The real motivation for DAB has always been the commercial sector's desire to shove more mediocre radio programming down people's speakers even if the BBC has tried to innovate with new stations such as the now-to-be saved BBC6 music channel. But it took the threat of closure for anyone to notice it even existed.
The government - the last government that is - spied easy money from freeing spectrum. DAB was just another sad example of how remote they had become.
Manufacturers are slowly stating to tame DAB with better designs, but by the time they do superior systems such as the incompatible DAB+ will be bearing down on the industry. Do people really want to have to throw their sets away a second time? With sets unable to take a firmware upgrade that could well be the case.
We can only now hope that DAB's inevitable demise is not as painful as its introduction.