Digital Radio set for 2009 stillbirth?


In 1995, a Fairfax journalist told me that I should not worry too much about the Internet. Ignore it, he reassured me, and it would go away. He added that those who were predicting that the Internet would completely reshape the media landscape, were living on another planet. As we now know, his prediction - in common with that of many others - could not have been further from the reality of what has occurred.

In 2006, I could envisage a commercial radio employee telling me the same thing about digital radio. Ignore it, and it will go away. In this case, he or she would be right, more or less.

Last month, Communications Minister Helen Coonan confirmed that she does not believe it should be introduced for some time. She nominated a launch date of January 2009. In reality, she is reflecting the desire of the commercial radio industry to see it delayed until it has passed its use-by date. They don't want anything to change.

However the industry knows that change is inevitable, and that it will destroy the oligopoly. Austereo has long been one of the most profitable players in the industry. Its CEO Michael Anderson admitted on Channel 9's Business Sunday at the weekend that radio as we know it "is coming to an end". He and other executives realise that it is in their best interest to delay the introduction of digital radio. They have lobbied the Minister for extra time.

Digital Radio to be introduced by 2009Speaking at April's Australian Broadcasting Summit in Sydney, Senator Coonan announced a 2009 start: "This is a realistic estimation of the time needed to put into place a complex legislative and regulatory time frame for the new broadcasting technology."

But it's arguable that digital radio could begin almost immediately. Successful test transmissions have taken place in Sydney and Melbourne over the past two years. With the appropriate political will, the ABC would need much less time to prepare to commence ongoing digital radio transmissions. The required political will might have been manifest in a designated allocation in last week's Federal Budget, as it was with respect to other ABC activities. The ABC is already organised to offer extra services such as DIG music channels for niche interests such as jazz and country. Digital would also allow it to put special programming types such as Parliament and cricket and other sport on dedicated channels, rather than interrupt regular programs.

As regulators and broadcasters in the UK have realised, the best time for the consumer to benefit from the mooted digital radio technology is now. Known as Eureka 147, or DAB, it's been on air there for a decade. The technology has matured, and its usefulness will soon decline. It will be overtaken by more and better options by 2009.

The Bug DAB Digital RadioIn Australia, digital radio is already available in a number of other forms less convenient than a conventional portable or car radio receiver. For example, Foxtel and other digital pay TV providers offer dozens of digital radio channels as part of their basic package. But more than likely, it will arrive in more convenient forms by 2009, and this will make DAB unnecessary.

There are many emerging technologies. The most prominent of these is podcasting. Because it is simple, and uses the Internet, almost anybody can be a broadcaster, and the technology has the potential to take power and profits away from the traditional broadcasting sector. Aside from iPods, mobile phones are already a source of media content. In Australia, 3G mobile phones offer TV. If there is consumer demand, service providers are equipped to offer radio on mobile phones. There are, and will be, further options. Who will want to pay $200 for a DAB receiver when they can get the same service on their mobile phone or pay TV service for little or no extra cost?

In recent decades, the Australian Government has become indebted to the commercial radio industry, since it has established the practice of raising revenue through the public auction of broadcast licences. In 2004, the DMG group paid a combined $158 million for the FM frequencies used by its Vega stations, which commenced broadcasting last year. Minister Coonan has said that FM analogue signals would not be turned off. The opportunity cost of this would be significant, given the more efficient use that could be made of the limited spectrum it occupies, in a fully digital environment. The possibility - or hope - that digital radio might just go away may not be completely fanciful.

DMG was paying not just for the frequencies, but for the right to a disproportionate say in determining public broadcasting policy. This means that the policy effectively has as its major goal, the health of the balance sheets of the commercial broadcasters, rather than the public good. That is why, unlike consumers in the UK, we are currently missing out on the benefit of DAB digital radio.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street Online.



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Existing comments

The way I see it, DAB still has some limitations including the high cost of receivers.
I am thinking,why not introduce XM radio to Australia -the signal is still line of sight (like DAB)
there is an inital outlay of $20 million dollars(but look at how much our state govermants wastes!)
The receivers are remarkably cheap(I bought a secondhand working one on ebay for US$25.00)
The inital oulay could be reimbursed to the government through a subscription service(the same as the one in the USA.)
With a satellite perhaps in geosnycronious orbit over New Zealand
The Australian government could generate subsription revenue from as far away as Hawaii (which still has no XM radio)This coverage would include ALL parts of Australia ,New Zealand and New Guinea Perhaps all of Hawaii.Also parts of Indonesia and perhaps the and perhaps lower Asia.
Free trials of XM radio is at
Keith Lyons | 27 September 2008

Very interesting, good job and thanks for sharing such a good information.
Leah | 26 May 2020


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