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2017: Making DAB more mobile ahead of switchover events

With Norway now just days away from starting the switch from FM to DAB+ digital radio, the industry is giving thought to how listeners can make the most out of DAB digital radio on the go.

The DAB compatible LG Stylus 2 smartphone appears to have been a one-off, with the newly announced LG Stylus 3 back to being FM only. And some top-end mobile phones have done away with regular terrestrial broadcast radio reception altogether.

With access to broadcast radio in the event of emergency seen as essential by the authorities, when mobile networks may become congested or even disabled and when it is important that users can access the latest information, regardless of how much data they have left, a concerted campaign in the USA to get FM radios back onto smartphones has resulted in the dormant FM function being activated in some phones and devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 having FM included in the US model of the phone.

But in countries such as Norway, where on the 11th January 2017 digital radio switchover commences, and in places like South Tyrol (Italy) and Switzerland - the next areas planning to go DAB-only, the FM function on smartphones will become useless. And these countries lack the clout to persuade the mobile industry to adopt DAB more widely in smartphones. Additionally, many older car radios will need kitting out for DAB in order to continue working in these areas, relevant for people living there and also for the many travelling through these territories.

A number of solutions are already available:

"Pop your phone" (pictured above), a dongle manufactured by Sahaga AS, is designed to be inserted into an Android smartphone's micro USB slot. The dongle, specifically designed to overcome the lack of DAB support in phones in Norway has been promoted by the Norwegian radio industry ahead of digital radio switchover. It converts every compatible phone or tablet into a DAB+ receiver, in conjunction with an app available to download from the Google Play store.

A number of car radio adapters providing DAB/DAB+ reception in-car are now also on the market across the UK and Europe. DAB networks have been expanded in recent years favouring coverage on motorways and major trunk roads, and it's on the move where DAB's advantage in terms of the use of single frequency networks and not needing to retune comes into play. AutoExpress tested a number of DAB adaptors in October 2016, with the Pure Highway 400 coming top.

While the car industry is continuing to move towards providing DAB support in new cars, many in the mobile industry view internet radio as the way forward which makes the likes of the "Pop your phone" dongle appear to have a short life span. But the lack of affordable, unlimited data plans in most countries and the fact that regular broadcast radio is part of local contingency plans to broadcast information to the public in the event of natural disasters or attacks, when local mobile internet connections may be down or disabled, appear to provide such dongles with a suitable niche.

Outside of the echo chambers of forums and industry groups where everybody uses internet radio on their phone and uses their smartphone data connection for in-car streaming, there appears to be an ongoing appetite by consumers to be able to access radio in their car, without chewing up data allowances and being subject to the quality of their mobile network. With mountainous South Tyrol offering 99.3% population coverage of DAB ahead of its FM switch-off, despite the tricky alpine terrain, there's hope that DAB will be able to deliver unmetered near universal coverage in other areas if there's sufficient investment in the transmitter network.

In 2017, a crucial DAB digital radio switchover criterion in the UK is likely to be triggered, when radio listening figures are expected to confirm that over 50% of radio listening is now done digitally. This trigger is expected to facilitate further DAB coverage expansion, especially among some local DAB multiplexes.

But to succeed, the DAB platform will need to show it can adapt beyond the kitchen or clock radio and continue to provide solutions such as dongles and adapters to enable reception in a diverse number of places and devices. Therefore the experiences of Norway, Switzerland and South Tyrol and how consumers in those areas embrace the currently available solutions of accessing DAB on smartphones, tablets and through car radio adapters will be of great interest to those in the UK and beyond when planning their digital radio switchovers.