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back to article Digital radio may replace FM altogether - even though nobody wants it

On the 16th December, culture minister Ed Vaizey makes one of the least popular decisions anyone in the Ministry of Fun can make – implementing the unwanted digital radio switchover. Moving the major UK radio stations to DAB from FM would force the newer digital standard through - while of making millions of analogue sets …

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Won't happen

It won't happen in the short to medium term. Too many small stations can't afford to go onto DAB and the multiplex transmission areas don't match their own MSA's. I know of one radio station that was offered space on a mux that if they'd had accepted would be broadcasting to just 30% of their own "area" but to a massive area they didn't broadcast to. Made no sense let alone the cost which was many times more expensive than their FM setup.

I might even suggest the BBC may be pushed into taking stations off of FM first to pave the way and make life easier for the commercials. This is essentially happened when the BBC had to vacate it's MW frequencies. Although ironically the vacated frequencies were sold off to commercial stations (Virgin and Talk Sport) with 1 set of frequencies being reserved for Radio 5.

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Anonymous Coward

If DAB was actually better sound quality than FM, then it might stand a chance.

But as it is, several channels have better quality sounding FM stations than on DAB with many on quite low bit rates and some even broadcasting in mono.

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Pirate

Since when did that prevent the switchover to block-o-vision TV?

Really, DAB can sound better than FM, however it frequently doesn't. As far as one of the advertised benefits of coping with interference goes... utter bollocks.

Still, at least the digital switchover will leave plenty of room on the FM dial for the stations that play decent music. See icon.

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I'm from the U.S. but...

So I don't really know anything about (or hear) DAB. But... My observation from digital TV is that the broadcasters want to squeeze more 'stations' (broadcasts) into a single channel, in order to maximize revenue, commercials I assume. So now the expensive 1080P TV doesn't get many stations higher than 720, and when I was watching one station and they showed a flock of birds taking off, the whole screen became blocky and pixellated, presumably because the compression algorithm couldn't handle the high rate of changed data caused by all the movement. Same thing with sports scenes or other action scenes. It sucks.

And every time I turn off the switch to the fluorescent light, I lose a half second of audio and video. I long for the days when all you'd see was a glitch on the screen and (probably not even) a click in the sound. I wonder if DAB is going to suffer the same vulnerability. In which case, I think it should stay away from the U.S.

What could be worse is if HPN or ethernet over the power lines starts to interfere with the DAB signals. Or if the 'white space' digital signals start getting too close to the DAB signals. Stuff happens...

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No. It can't sound better. The codecs used in DAB introduce non-harmonic distortion into an audio signal. For music, this is ghastly. Far worse than hiss and crackle, far worse than mere harmonic distortion.

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My tuppence worth

I have a couple of DAB radios and several FM. I listen for hours to the FM and find it is easy on the ear. I listen to the same programs on DAB and the over compression and poor quality actually make it fatiguing to listen to. You should be listening to the program (FM) not noticing the compression/artifacts/noise that it is making (DAB). There is plenty of unused space on the FM band that could host some more of the "desirable" channels at decent quality (leaving DAB still there as a choice - I'm not saying ditch it) but no one seems to want to do that when there is a quick buck to be made by flogging off the FM frequency band and as someone else has pointed out, when you have designed lots of nice digital DAB gardware you can lobby for that sale, dangling carrots of financial windfalls right left and centre to our elected elite.

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DAB Bashing

The Reg has been on an anti-DAB crusade for about 10 years now.

Without straying onto the topic of internet radio, I like my DAB radios and anecdotally I think most of the radio listening public feel either neutral or positive towards it. In fact given the choice between 10 stations on FM, 50 on DAB I know which one will give me more content I want to listen to. My kitchen radio? DAB. Garage? DAB. My car? See below..

The only way to increase uptake further is to put more effort into getting DAB sets installed and working in cars. I had a horrendous mini countryman courtesy car last month, the only saving grace being an excellent DAB radio - why has it taken until 2012 for vehicle manufacturers to to even install them alongside FM??

Anyway - the Reg, you've been forecasting the death of DAB for a decade like some crazed FM-Shareholder. Maybe after all this time you should pop out and buy a set and maybe, just maybe it might not be as bad as you thought.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: DAB Bashing

If DAB will ever become a viable alternative they need to stop messing around, tear the entire thing down and start again.

DAB gives access to better stations so you don't have to listen to the morons on BBC, but the actual quality isn't much better, and the signal reception is pretty pap.

There's nothing more annoying than driving along listening to a good track, only for the sodding radio to start re-tuning to the next nearest antennae.

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Re: DAB Bashing

DAB sets are expensive and don't last long on batteries. I've got a Sony world radio that runs on 4 'AA' cells for about two weeks of fairly intensive FM listening. Is there any DAB radio that can come close to that sort of performance? No, thought not. DAB sets are almost all confined to mains operation because battery life is so poor.

I've been looking at DAB sets for some years and have always been put off by the price and the weight, mainly that of 4 'D'' cells that'll be needed for any sort of mobility.

My current cost estimate for replacing all my radios is in the region of £250 if you include replacing the car radio. I can't buy a single DAB adaptor like I could for the TV, and I have no reason to go and spend this money on radios other than the government forcing me to.

DAB offers me nothing I want, and at considerable expense. That's why I'm opposed.

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Re: DAB Bashing

When I've had DAB in a car its been great. I have no problem with in car DAB. After all there is a nice big 12V lead acid battery and loads of spare power from the alternator to power all those extra transistors, plus the ability to have an external aerial with a nice big ground-plane making reception of the signal easy.

Where I do have a problem with is on my portable radio inside my house. The aerial on my portable radio isn't as good as a car aerial, and the brick walls of the house get in the way of the signal. This is down to the propogation of 200 -> 300 MHz signals not being anywhere near as good in a house as a 100 MHz FM signal. Reception of DAB in my house is crap. I have to have the frickin' receiver near a window to stop it losing the signal. Then there is the issue of powering up all those extra frickin transistors. The AA batteries in my nice little cheap FM radio last for WEEKS. In a DAB radio I have to have it plugged into the mains because I can't afford its appetite for batteries.

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Re: DAB Bashing

Whoopie for you.

Personally, I'm not a big radio listener so have no "bias" either way. But DAB doesn't receive where I drive. It means replacing every radio I own. It also means that signals exhibit the same as digital TV signals when the power is weak - artifacts that you can't compensate for rather than a slight static / loss of volume as on FM. Not only that, but the WORST thing that ever happened to UK TV was when we went from 5 channels to 100's. Reason: The advertising revenue dive-bombed and so did the quality. There's a reason Saturday night TV died, when it was the staple for decades. There's a reason that channels are full of "cheap" repeats. There's a reason that advert breaks are twice as long as they were when I was a kid. Putting 50 DAB channels when there's only X amount of channels bothering to take an FM licence means two things - the big channels die and the small, junky, new, channels take over to get their 0.1% of the audience in their place.

The reason vehicle manufacturer's don't install it is because people won't pay for it. I'd rather have no radio at all (literally - same as me giving up my TV for several years when the digital switchover happened and barely noticing - I only have one now because it's "free" with my phone/broadband).

The death of DAB is not when there are zero DAB channels. It's when people don't buy into it. There are lots of Thunderbolt-interconnection products out there. It doesn't mean that it's dead, but it also doesn't mean that it'll rule the world.

When you take into account the "Oh, your Freeview needs another upgrade" DVB-T2 debacle, then it's inevitable that people are loathe to jump into DAB especially when there's been talk of codec upgrades and DAB2 for a long time now. And that will mean changing all your hardware again. Freeview etc. could piggy-back on the fortunately-timed fad for large, flatscreen TV's on walls taking over from thick, bulbous CRT's on a TV cabinet. DAB doesn't have any such thing. "HD Audio"? I couldn't tell when my laptop advertised 96Kb/s audio 10 years ago, why would I care now?

DAB isn't dead, but it's never really got a good start in life and won't be going far without being FORCED as a standard. And it's just as likely that people abandon radio entirely in that case, rather than move on. It's a risk that the major stations don't want to take because they know it probably won't go their way. They may be FORCED to at some point but if you have to force people onto a technology, rather than letting market forces play out, then you know that it's doomed.

If FM turned off tomorrow, I wouldn't be buying a DAB radio. At all. Probably forever. I'm a geek, and I have multiple dual-tuner TV cards from both analog and digital eras, just "because" it then gives me an adaptor to view that content if I ever need it. In comparison I have an FM radio in the car, one on my phone, one in the shed, one in the kitchen, etc. - which of those would I DAB if they turned off? None of them. I'd just stop using them. I wouldn't even bother to go to the effort of binning them.

If DAB were just a digitisation of radio that could be implemented on a simple circuit, they'd already be implemented. It would be like LW/MW/FM transitions - just switch to digital audio and have the same channels. The fact it that it requires a lot of upgrades and a lot of junk and a lot of frequency allocation and provides poorer overall service when you consider ALL current users of FM. And all the "selling points" aren't - sending additional data and even images over DAB is a waste of time in the Internet era.

Fact is, DAB is streaming audio over 3G (maybe not specifically, but that's basically what it is) but without any significantly useful buffering. If I want that, I have that elsewhere but done a lot better (sometimes on my existing devices, e.g. smartphone).

DAB isn't dead, but it's a dead-end. It might be forced into the market and enjoy a small resurgence but DAB2 will be the decider - death of all DAB or obsoletion of the existing DAB. When you have found out which, come back and tell me so I can look at buying it then.

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Re: DAB Bashing

"The only way to increase uptake further is to put more effort into getting DAB sets installed and working in cars. I had a horrendous mini countryman courtesy car last month, the only saving grace being an excellent DAB radio - why has it taken until 2012 for vehicle manufacturers to to even install them alongside FM??"

Try using a DAB car radio outisde of the main cities and you'll see why.

not to mention that that the UK's DAB system is ONLY used in the UK (Everyone else uses DAB-T2), so UK-specific radios aren't much of a market worth bothering with.

More power to you if you get a usable DAB signal. I've tried and I don't, not even with an external antenna. Trying in the car was even worse, even using a DAB antenna.

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Re: DAB Bashing

And why do you think DAB gets bashed? It's not that there are FM and DAB fanboys competing, it's just that DAB has failed on most counts:

Coverage - poorer

Power consumption - poorer

Audio quality - mostly poorer, much through use of low bit-rates on inefficient codecs and even mono.

Selection - It wins!

The really annoying thing is that it could have been so much better. The adoption of an early and non-upradeable codec means things will never get better for DAB, all we can hope is that manufacturers will be pressed to make DAB+ inclusion as mandatory, with a view to changing the standard in future.

It comes as no surprise that 2018-2013=5 years - the accepted life of domestic kit nowadays, suggesting to me that they will switch systems in 5 years, making much of the current DAB stuff obsolete.

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Re: DAB Bashing

The Roberts DAB I have runs very happily for about 4 days of intensive listening on rechargable AAs, Personally I got DAB because I value the wider variety of stations - 6 Music and 4 Extra in particular. I also nipped down to Halfords and got one for the car.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: DAB Bashing

"The Reg has been on an anti-DAB crusade for about 10 years now."

I don't know where you've been, but here on planet Earth just about all BBC output has been plagued by ads featuring an 'cool' black midget puppet extolling the virtues of digital (including DAB.).

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Re: DAB Bashing

If it wasn't for the fact that DAB is bad technology I would imagine that El Reg might consider standing behind it.

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Re: DAB Bashing

Perhaps someone will come up with a converter box that rebroadcasts a single channel on a FM frequency, over an area of a few tens or so square meters. Then the old FM radios will be able to receive any one of the DAB channels. Something like a mobile hot spot for FM radios. And if they wanted to add a feature, they could decode the online radio stations and rebroadcast one of them, too. It will probably put a dent in DAB set sales, so the manufacturers will probably oppose it.

Boo! Happy Halloween.

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Re: DAB Bashing

If most of the people in the 'neutral or positive' category are neutral, then what is the justification for changing it?

And if you already have FM sets all over the place and you're satisfied with the content...

If something isn't broke, then why fix it? Just my two U.S. cent's worth.

Oh, yeah, I forgot about one reason. Changing to DAB will help the manufacturers sell more radio sets. Obsolete all those FM sets and we'll sell all these DAB radios.

Oh, they forgot that the users could just change over to their favorite stations on their PCs, laptops and mobes -- for free. Duh.

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Re: DAB Bashing - landfill

5 years? - possibly for tvs but many people keep theirs for much longer.

When it comes to radios and stereo equipment I would have thought much longer then 5 years would be the norm. At my parents home most of their radio kit is at least 10 years old, some much older. It works as well as it ever did and they have no intention of replacing working equipment. Rightly so.

Forcing people to replace working equipment at their own expense is ridiculous. The waste would be huge. Imagine it tens of, possibly a 100, million radios being thrown away. All working , all adding to landfill.

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Re: DAB Bashing

I have DAB in my car, I thought "great, now I get to try out DAB". However it's horrible, it keeps cutting out and in again. At least the FM signal is analog and when the signal degrades you can still hear it. With DAB it's all or nothing (digital!). If they think of shutting down FM I will complain loudly. If they sort out the signal issues then I would be happy.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: DAB Bashing

There is indeed agenda here. Something that's never mentioned is the CHOICE that dab offers. On fm I have the same old shite namely

Radio 1 and local radio which caters for 11 to 16 Year olds

Radio 3,4 and 5 for pensioners

Classic fm for pensioners

That's it. Dab offers me loads of channels

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Re: DAB Bashing

>I have no problem with in car DAB. After all there is a nice big 12V lead acid battery

Fine until you're stationary, I've had a DAB radio pancake a car battery in under an hour - result unable to start engine and a call to a recovery organisation ...

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Re: DAB Bashing

Perhaps someone will come up with a converter box that rebroadcasts a single channel on a FM frequency, over an area of a few tens or so square meters.

But it'll sound even more crap than a pure DAB radio. And it'll do nothing to address DAB's other weaknesses. It won't get you a signal that doesn't keep dropping out on the move (es[ecially in rural parts), and it won't give you the battery life of an FM radio if you want to listen somewhere that a mains or automotive electricity supply is not available.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: DAB Bashing

It's not just getting it into the market that will help adoption. It should be required to be integrated into radio equipment with AM and/or FM, at least two full years before go live. TVs sold in the U.S. were mostly analog up to the day that digitial broadcast went live. The U.S. government shelled out money for coverters, when it should have mandated that all manufacturers put the tech. into the t.v.'s sold years ahead of the digital rollout.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: DAB Bashing

"a converter box that rebroadcasts a single channel on a FM frequency, over an area of a few tens or so square meters. Then the old FM radios will be able to receive any one of the DAB channels. Something like a mobile hot spot for FM radios."

Look up Pure Highway.

Then ask yourself why the current version is £150 at Halfords.

I did briefly have a refurb version of an earlier model (bought for £50). It broke, I won't be replacing it.

And if you're a serious traveller, ask yourself (and the industry) why DAB radio doesn't even have RDS-like Traffic Program functionality.

Give me 6 Music on FM instead of one of the now-indistinguishable "not-independent not-local" radio stations being allowed to occupy much of the FM band in contravention of their original licence terms (requiring local origination and content, not just locally targeted adverts), and then I personally have no need at all for DAB.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: DAB Bashing

[Whoops, missed the edit window].

The current (£150) Pure Highway is a hard wired DAB thing. The original (£70?) Highway was a DAB->FM retransmitter. Not the same thing. Sorry.

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Pint

Re: DAB Bashing

I remember reading that the signal on the European DAB-T2 was considerably better

than the cut down cheapo version we have been stuffed with in the UK.

Politics, money and the BBC were the main cause of our 3rd rate tech offering.

So much for the EEC unification if the car radio you buy in the UK

is not much good across the channel !

( English Sea Channel that is...NOT, a radio channel)

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Re: DAB Bashing

Experience of DAB depends almost entirely on location. I live in the IT workers' paradise of the Thames Valley - on the A4 between Slough and Maidenhead to be precise - and there is just one windowsill in my house where a strategically placed DAB set can (usually) get some sort of signal. I have a semi-built-in system in my kitchen that uses an external aerial to receive DAB reasonably effectively. Apart from that, forget it.

That's point one.

Point 2 is that even if you had decent signal coverage DAB receivers are heavy, bulky and power hungry. If you are away from mains power for more than a couple of hours then your DAB receiver rapidly morphs into a brick. And if you are on mains power, chances are you are online too so can use Internet radio. Failing that, the radio signals from Sky or Freeview telly.

So, where DAB works quite well there are alternatives that work just as well, and where FM is the best solution DAB hardly works at all.

In this case El Reg is perfectly correct to lead the resistance to a compulsory switch. If it gets a bit tedious for your taste, well you don't have to read the articles.

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Re: DAB Bashing

> Perhaps someone will come up with a converter box that rebroadcasts a single channel on a FM frequency, over an area of a few tens or so square meters.

Well you could do that with the Internet and it would probably be a lot more reliable.

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Silver badge

FM Radio:

- inexpensive sets,

-very good battery life (weeks of occasional listing on two AA batteries)

-audio is in sync between sets in different rooms (not true of DAB sets)

-speech remains largely comprehensible when reception is poor.

-sets turn on instantly

DAB:

-Expensive sets (of which I would need two at home plus one in the car and one for the jacket pocket)

-terrible battery life,

- only a slightly wider selection of content than FM

-Audio quality rapidly becomes intolerable when reception is poor.

-audio quality not fantastic, even in ideal reception (poor codec)

Internet:

-Thousands of stations and podcasts, plus streaming services from Spotify et al.

-Many people already own the required hardware

-Sound quality can be very good.

If I wanted the things DAB offers, I'd be better off using the internet. I already possess the hardware, and there is literally a whole world of content available. Leave FM alone - there is a place for easy, cheap, low power listening. DAB shares the disadvantages of internet-enabled devices (expense and poor battery life) but offers only a shadow of their advantages.

I'm not sure what is difficult to grasp here.

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I agree, why don't they just plan to retire dab in the long term and replace it with internet streaming? 3G (and eventually 4G) coverage is probably of a similar level to DAB coverage and we can bin a whole standard! Keep FM for areas with patchy mobile internet.

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You left one out

FM Radio:

-Doesn't have the channels I want to listen to.

Ah, but that doesn't fit your arguement does it?

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That's next parliaments plan. When everybody has switched to DAB they will sell off those frequencies and everyone can switch to t'internet

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So we should all replace our radios (the factory fit one in my 2 year old car is going to be expensive) so you can listen to your favourite radio station? Where do you work? The House of Commons?

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I think you missed a very important consideration also:

FM - requires very few freely-available and trivial components to receive

DAB - requires highly-developed and non-trivial silicone made by relatively few companies

Now, if I've invested many man-years of development time to research and manufacture chips to decode DAB then the least I can do to get some return on my investment is sponsor a political party who can push through completely dumb legislation which will result in me selling lots of devices.

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FM radio has all the channels I want - DAB does not

Internet download and a small fm transmitter. Sorted.

DAB radio - just gurgles cos the signal in the house is no good. And there isnt a singe radio what isnt designed by some attention seeking idiot designer - I want my radio so I can listen to it, not for it to clash with every other item in the house.

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FAIL

The big negative for internet 3G/4G streaming of radio is the cost of the mobile data, the monthly fee and/or the per-MB cost. At home on a near-unlimited broadband connection this isn't so much of a concern.

(and yes, I did listen to LBC 97.3 by wifi + VPN while visiting the in-laws in Guangdong.)

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Re: FM radio has all the channels I want - DAB does not

@Tom 7

"And there isnt a singe radio what isnt designed by some attention seeking idiot designer"

Love it! how true...

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It's Silicon. (You may however have a radio polishing fetish - who am I to judge.)

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Anonymous Coward

Highly-developed and non-trivial silicone?

Radio isn't the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of silicone.

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FM Radio:

-Doesn't have the channels I want to listen to.

The internet does and I can stream it to my mobile phone, with coverage where I need it.

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DAB : needs x6 as many fill in transmitters as FM to avoid holes in coverage

DAB : Inherent delay in changing stations vs FM. Huge delay to acquire a new Multiplex that wasn't stored.

The problem isn't just DAB, "Digital" at all proves to be a poor replacement for AM & FM. Even FM can't do away with AM, AM is only way to have fully national coverage and trans-national broadcasting.

Satellite, 3G/4G, Internet, Cable, DTT can't replace AM & FM either, only complement it.

Most of the problems with DAB can't be solved by using a different Digital System such as DAB+ (likely to only be used to double number of channels, never for more quality), DRM or DRM+ or DMB or LTE-B or whatever.

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@Capt J

I love Radio 6 Music, and I won't deny that FM stations are limited. That was taken into account in my argument, and I did state that DAB has more stations that FM.

Basically, the cons outweigh the pros.

Today you can walk into any supermarket and walk out with a £3.99 device that will let you hear the news, some comedy and some music, and continue to do so for many many hours on a single battery... making it £25 for a device that only lasts a few hours is just silly. Really, it's like the difference between a CREE LED and a Xenon flash-light in terms of battery life. One of the genuinely useful technological advances in the last decade is that when you pull a torch out of your glovebox today, there is a very good chance the damned thing is ready for use.

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@redpola DAB - requires highly-developed and non-trivial silicone

You mean you can receive DAB on breast implants? Or just that it gets on yer tits?

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Anonymous Coward

Doh!

DAB is Free to listen to once you have paid for the receiver.

Internet streaming is not. Your 3G connection costs money and has capacity limits.

Also not everywhere can get even 2G let alone 3G or for heavens sake 4G.

Where I live (<50km from London) I can get DAB perfectly. 100yds up the road is a phone dead spot yet my in car DAB works perfectly. Don't even talk about the railway line from Redhill to Reading. IMHO a good 20% is a mobile dead zone for 2 of the 3 networks and in some places no mobile connectivity at all.

Many people seem to fail to grasp the difference between a BROADCAST technology and a POINT-2-POINT technology.

1:Many vs 1:1

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why don't they just plan to retire dab in the long term and replace it with internet streaming?

Coverage and bandwidth. Do you think 4G will ever be available on unclassified roads in deepest Dorset or the Grampians, five miles from the nearest hamlet? (And even if road coverage were to reach 100%, what about farmers and walkers miles off anyroad). Do you think there will be enough bandwidth to support any encoding that doesn't introduce so much non-harmonic distortion as to turn music from a source of joy into a source of pain?

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Fine. You want choice. You have it. Go buy a DAB radio. Just don't ask the rest of us who are perfectly happy listening to the available channels on FM to waste our money buying things we don't want and for a far inferior sound quality.

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FAIL

DAB struggles to play

We have a few DABs kicking around the house. The main one in the kitchen needs to be connected to an aerial in the loft to get the local radio stations. A portable dab I brought for the wife still resides in it's box, unloved and I recently brought a clock radio with DAB and R2 is the only one that is strong enough to play without distortion.

But it's unlikely I will ever replace the ones in our cars or buy adapters so it's the advertisers that may lose out in the long run.

DAB fail

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Re: DAB struggles to play

"R2 is the only one that is strong enough to play without distortion"

How do you manage to get a single station to have a stronger signal than others on the multiplex?

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Re: DAB struggles to play

Not necessarily stronger. Within one multiples the broadcaster can choose the error resilience (ruggedness) of individual streams.

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