Starting Wednesday, Norway will become the first country in the world to begin shutting down its entire FM (Frequency Modulation) radio network and replacing it with digital radio — a move that is being closely monitored by other European nations. The Norwegian government has controversially decided to replace, over the course of 2017, all FM frequencies with Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB).
The move, which is expected to be the biggest shift in radio technology since the shift from AM to FM, will begin in the northern county of Nordland on Wednesday, and other regions of the country are expected to follow suit soon.
So what exactly is DAB? How is it different from FM?
The difference between digital radio and normal radio is similar to the difference between analogue TV (or cable network) and digital TV (set-top boxes). DAB works by coding sound into digital signals, breaking them up, and then decoding and assembling them at the destination using digital radio receivers. As a result, there is minimal loss of audio quality, and sound is reproduced in near CD-like quality.
But why is the Norwegian government shifting to DAB?
One of the major reasons for Norway’s shift to DAB from FM is cost to the government. By cancelling the FM-based system, authorities say they expect to save 200 million Norwegian krone ($ 28.5 million) every year. The move also allows the government to sell more spectrum space to radio stations.
AM/FM, on the other hand, commonly suffers with loss of quality from interference caused by signals bouncing off buildings, towers and natural structures like mountains. Since Norway has many mountains, valleys and fjords, it makes a lot of sense for the country to go for digital radio, which gives out a steady signal in any topography.
Okay, and what are the other advantages of DAB?
The number of national stations in Norway can go up to 40 from the 5 stations it has currently. Norwegian authorities add that DAB offers better coverage, allows listeners to catch up on programmes they have missed, and makes it easier to broadcast emergency messages in times of crisis.
Along with the song, DAB also lets radio stations broadcast other digital information like which song is currently playing, the name of the artiste, album art etc, which can be displayed on the screens of phones or cars.
Along with being much clearer, digital signals are also easier to tune, as users don’t need to browse through a frequency range in order to locate their favourite radio channel. They can instead just pick the radio station or broadcast they want from a menu.
And the disadvantages?
Much like the shift to set-top boxes the world over, people across Norway will be expected to replace their radio devices with digital radio receivers. They will either be expected to buy digital conversion kits for cars which cost around 1500 krone ($ 215) or purchase entirely new radio sets and music systems. The Norwegian government estimates that at present, only 20% of radio sets in the country are compatible with DAB.
Although DAB has the potential to provide better sound quality than FM, in reality, governments may end up filling the DAB bandwidth with as many channels as possible which may divide the bit-rate (the rate of data transfer) among these broadcasts. As a result, if the DAB bandwidth is choked, it may suffer a drop in quality.
How is the move perceived in Norway?
In a recent poll conducted by Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, 66% of people in the country were against the move, with barely 17 per cent in favour. Critics say the government is rushing the move, and many people may miss warnings on emergencies that have until now been broadcast via the radio. Of particular concern are the 2 million cars on Norway’s roads that are not equipped with DAB receivers.
Will other countries follow suit?
A number of countries have suggested they too might shut down FM at some point soon. For instance, Switzerland has said that by 2020 it will make the shift to digital radio. “Many countries are now looking to Norway to learn,” Ole Jorgen Torvmark, head of a project called Digital Radio Norway, being run by national broadcasters to aid the transition, told Reuters when the 2017 shutdown was first announced in 2015.