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Digital Radio: UK v Germany

As Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy Ed Vaizey and his German counterpart Dorothee Bär share their vision for digital radio, how different or similar is DAB digital radio in the two countries?

UK: DAB digital radio has only recently started to take off. In 2008, the platform was having a major crisis, with stations closing and major commercial radio companies pulling back from supporting digital radio. Following years of negotiations surrounding funding, in 2013 the expansion of coverage re-started in earnest with new local DAB multiplexes being launched. The BBC and commercial operators agreed a major programme of DAB coverage expansion at the start of 2015, due to complete next year. A second national multiplex will launch in 2016 relieving pressure off existing multiplexes, some of which are now full to capacity.

Germany: The original DAB service in the country was a complete non-starter and resulted in 2011 in a re-launch for digital radio, using the newer DAB+ standard. A new national multiplex launched, which is in the process of being expanded to cover more areas. In each state, additional multiplexes are available carrying either just the main public service stations or a mix of commercial and public service stations.

Industry reaction
UK: The BBC has always supported digital radio, launching digital only stations in the early 00s, including 6Music and 4Extra's forerunner BBC 7 and building its DAB network to reach 97% of the UK by the end of this year.

Some sections of the commercial radio industry have been very hostile to DAB in the past. In 2008, GCap, now part of Global Radio, axed its digital stations. In 2010, UKRD threatened to launch anti-DAB adverts. That's changed: Global has been supporting the roll-out of digital radio, launching services on local multiplexes and creating new DAB stations such as Smooth Extra. UKRD has recently launched numerous services on local DAB. Many industry leaders see DAB as a growth opportunity for their portfolio of stations, with Bauer Media and UTV Radio looking forward to launching services on the new second national digital multiplex in 2016. Retailers and the motor industry are also on board.

Germany: After a disastrous first round for DAB, industry in Germany broadly welcomes digital radio. All public broadcasters support DAB, with various new digital-only services having been launched across different parts of the country. Right at the start of the relaunch process in 2011, Germany's equivalent to the AA or RAC, the ADAC voiced its support of the digitalisation of radio. It's not been easy for commercial broadcasters, with varying levels of engagement across the country. In July 2015, there was a call to use money raised through the so-called "Digital Dividend 2"for digital radio and to help commercial stations.

UK: Two national DAB multiplexes, another one to come next year (albeit with lower coverage), local DAB, often at a county level or covering major urban areas. In England, based on a mix of BBC  Local and local commercial radio coverage areas, depending on historical roll-out. Ultra-local "small scale" DAB multiplexes being trialed in 10 towns/cities offering local coverage to individual towns and cities or parts of cities.

Germany: Germany uses the newer DAB+ standard. One national DAB+ multiplex, with a mix of public and commercial stations. In each state (Bundesland), varying numbers of state-level multiplexes. At the very minimum, a multiplex in each state carrying the radio stations of the relevant state's public service broadcaster. In some states, there's additional multiplexes carrying local commercial stations or a mix of public and commercial stations. The Media Authority for Lower Saxony (NLM) has this week announced that it has launched a trial to look at optimising DAB+ for local content. Local commercial stations are currently completely absent from DAB+ in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen).

UK: All national stations from the BBC and the commercial sector are available on DAB. Most local BBC stations are now also available on DAB, although there are still gaps in coverage, where listeners have to fall back on FM or AM. 

All major local commercial stations are on DAB, as well as a number of 'pseudo-national' DAB stations, which are distributed on a number of local DAB multiplexes, but don't have widespread coverage across the country. 

In the past few years, community stations (what Germans call Bürgerradio) have started to appear on DAB, such as Pulse in Somerset.

All major broadcasters offer digital only stations, often building on the brand of an existing network, for example BBC Radio 4 Extra and Smooth Extra. The new Radio X, which broadcasts on FM in Manchester and London, is a digital-only station everywhere else. It's one of several stations that is using DAB to increase its coverage beyond its analogue coverage area.

Germany: Digital Radio has allowed national commercial radio stations to broadcast terrestrially across the whole of the country for the first time. There has never been a national FM network for commercial services, although some stations have acquired FM licences to operate in different states, but never with any significant coverage. 

Commercial stations broadcasting across Germany on DAB+ include Absolut Relax, sunshine live! and Klassik Radio.

The country's national public service broadcaster DeutschlandRadio has three full-time stations on the national multiplex; state-level public service broadcasters offer their services on the state-level multiplexes, although there are still substantial gaps in coverage. There are great variations in coverage with regards commercial stations - in some areas no local commercial stations are carried on DAB+.

German public broadcasters have launched special services on DAB+, such as NDR Blue and NDR Traffic in the north of Germany, the latter broadcasts traffic reports in a loop. The Autobahn network regularly suffers from traffic jams...  WDR Vera does the same thing in the western state of North Rhine Westfalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen).

Mono or stereo?
UK: The national commercial multiplex is crammed full of mono stations, and in London many stations are in mono. Generally, local DAB multiplexes contain all stereo or nearly all stereo line-ups.

Germany: Benefiting from the efficiency from using DAB+, although some stations use less bandwidth than their UK counterparts, they're mostly in stereo and a better equivalent quality than on 'original flavour' DAB.

UK: London 
Over 60 stations are available on DAB, far exceeding the number of stations available on FM and AM. Critics point out that many are mono, although this remains the most affordable option for many of the niche stations broadcasting across London.

Germany: Munich, Nuremberg (Bavaria) and Berlin are all DAB+ hotspots with over 40 stations available. Benefiting from the use of DAB+, the multiplexes can carry more stereo services than London. In Bavaria, demand far exceeded supply when new DAB+ capacity was made available by Bavaria's media authority. Bavaria's public broadcaster BR has confirmed it intends to launch new multiplexes across the state soon.

Effect on analogue radio?
UK: Listening via analogue radio continues to decline. Only around half of listening is now via analogue radio, listeners are increasing listening to stations that are also available on FM and AM on DAB instead.

At the moment, there's no major push to close AM services, although many analysts expect that in the next five years there will be significant movement in this area.

Germany: By the end of the year, German broadcasters will have ceased all AM transmissions. All affected services are available on digital radio instead.

Digital Radio reach has doubled since 2013. However, according to a report in September, in Germany car manufacturers generally charge extra for DAB, in contrast to the UK, where a model might be offered with DAB as standard. As a result, FM is still king.

Digital Radio Switchover?
UK: Not yet.
Germany: Not yet.

So, both countries have struggled with DAB since it first started broadcasting, although the UK avoided a complete reboot of the service. However, this has left it with the original DAB standard which has a notable impact on the number of stations and the availability of stereo stations.

And while a possible digital radio switchover is being eyed up in both countries, in reality it may be a few years off before all stations that want to go digital can be accommodated and a while before all consumers are ready for the change. The UK is going to be the last country in western Europe with AM networks, although it's always had more variety on AM than in Germany, where AM has traditionally been dominated by the speech networks of the German public broadcasters.