International deadlines seem to be Uganda’s best bet to pull off any technological change, we have seen this in the delayed adaptation of the Digital Migration for TV and UCC’s recent adaptation for 2600 MHz band to be fully used for 4G LTE as recommended by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). With the June 30 deadline so near, it’s still an unsolved complex equation whether Ugandans especially those up-country will enjoy the full benefits for digital TV broadcasting. With over 42 FM radio station in and around Kampala only — Ugandans are spoilt for choice — but with FM radio technology soon becoming obsolete, is Uganda ready for Digital Migration for FM Radio also know as Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB)?
FM Radio is so yesterday
AM and FM Radio use analogue broadcasting technology which by default means require more spectrum to transmit plus other demerits that come with analogue technology. The future is clearly Digital Audio Broadcasting. Norway recently announced the shutdown of it’s FM radio technology beginning in 2017, according to Radio.no reports. This makes Norway the first country to do away with FM radio completely. And, after Norway by may be 2020 we shall see more countries join the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) transition and formally adopt it as a national standard.
DAB is not a new technology, the UK started experimental transmissions of the DAB in 1990 the uptake of DAB has increased since the launch of the BBC national DAB ensemble in 1995. This has consequently led to lower prices, new radio stations and marketing have increased the uptake of DAB radio in the UK. Several countries in the West have has DAB stations coexisting with FM radio stations, but in Uganda we are still stuck with AM radio in some places and no DAB broadcaster yet. The illustration below shows the current adaptation of DAB which currently popular, in several countries across Europe and Asia Pacific.
“Digital Audio Broadcasting” by Saftorangen – Own work WorldDMB – Country Information for DAB, DAB+ and DMB. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
With DAB technology, you could have Digital radio on the digital terrestrial TV platforms like GoTV or Star Times. In fact, those with DSTV or free to air satellite decoders have noticed the tonnes of digital satellite radio stations you could listen to. We can also listen to our favorite FM radio stations online, but as Ugandans the cost of data doesn’t favor radio streaming.
When in Kampala Capital FM and Sanyu FM are on 91.3 MHz and 88.2 MHz respectively, but when you travel to a town like Mbale you will have to re-tune your FM radio to 90.9 MHz and 96.4 MHz to listen to the same radio stations. Capital FM alone has five different frequencies for the five major town it covers like Mbaraa, Kampala, Mbale, etc. DAB offers more radio programmes over a specific spectrum than analogue FM radio this means with DAB, each station will not need all these multiple frequencies for different locations.
FM is eight times more expensive than DAB, so with the migration, Ugandans will have access to more diverse and widespread radio-content, and enjoy better sound quality and new functionality. It should also be noted that with digitization there will be a chance for Uganda to come up with emergency preparedness systems, facilitate increased competition and as well offer new opportunities for innovation and development. The graph below shows an example of the listening share of the United Kingdom’s digital radio platforms – DAB, Digital TV, Internet and other forms of digital listening. There has been a steady growth in DAB listenership since 2007.
DAB currently offers 22 national channels as opposed to FM’s five, and has the capacity to host almost 20 more. According to the Norwegian ministry report, the cost of transmitting radio channels through FM is also eight times higher than the cost of DAB transmission. But not all is rosy in the DAB corner, DAB reception quality first degrades rapidly when the signal strength falls below a certain threshold, whereas FM reception quality degrades slowly.
Shall we ever catch up? There is already DAB+
DAB+ is an updated form of DAB and was made available in 2007. Unlike DAB, DAB+ comes with the advantage of providing high quality audio with bit rates as low as 64 kbit/s (poor signal strength). Broadcasters can mix DAB and DAB+ programs inside the same transmission, but we believe DAB+ will win in the end. The downside DAB/DAB+ unlike Digital TV migration where you could just buy a decoder to do the digital to analogue signal conversion for you, here users will have to buy new DAB radio tuners although currently manufacture
Even if there is no global digital migration deadline for FM radio yet, UCC needs to wake up and make future FM switch off strategies of course putting into consideration things like current FM radio coverage, recommended DAB frequency bands, and current FM licensing. But, I think it’s time for the investors in the Radio business in Uganda to rethink their technological investment strategies in the coming years. So, which year do you think we shall make this big switch? Your guess is as good as mine.
Image Credit: Tanget Audio