Difficult implementation of digital radio: how often do you buy a new radio?

Digital reception of radio stations should have been introduced throughout Germany long ago. But the private stations are afraid of the competition.

Do you still remember? This is a radio. Photo: imago/Westend61

Well, have you listened to the radio today? On medium wave? No one listens to it anymore anyway, which is why no one has noticed that since New Year’s Eve, there is no longer a German station on the most traditional of all broadcasting channels. Deutschlandradio and Saarlandischer Rundfunk were the last to switch off medium-wave broadcasting.

But don’t worry, FM still works. Although the Bundestag decided in the Telecommunications Act of 2004 that licenses for FM use should be "revoked by 2015 at the latest. By then, all German citizens were to receive their radio programs via DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting). But the Bundestag removed this passage from the law in 2011, as did some state parliaments that had similar regulations in their media laws. Despite all the efforts to introduce digital reception, there are still hardly any devices in households – which is why a FM switch-off was not justifiable until now.

In the meantime, the situation has changed. After the improved DAB+ standard was first introduced, there are more and more radios with a DAB module in stores, even in entry-level models. With prices from 40 euros upwards, DAB is now no longer a niche product. And there is really no reason for manufacturers to launch a device without digital reception. For consumers, the competition from Internet radio could make the decision more difficult, but even there, the price difference between single and combination receivers is rather marginal.

Only: How often do you buy a new radio? Estimates put the number of radio receivers in German households and offices at between 2 million. Almost all of them have an FM reception module. And there is little reason for new purchases, not least because most listeners can hardly comprehend the added value of DAB+ over FM.

Private radio stations show no interest

Current figures also indicate that only about 30 percent of all radios sold in stores have a DAB module. And despite the switch-off of transmitters, many new devices in stores still have an AM module to receive medium wave and sometimes short wave.

The other major obstacle is private radio providers. For years, they have shown little interest in DAB. They fear for their sinecures, because the consistent switch to this broadcasting method breaks up the market structures. There is more room for competition on the DAB frequency band, which is why the long-established radio stations are putting the brakes on the switchover wherever they can.

As recently as December, Klaus Schunk, the member of the board of the private broadcasters’ association vprt responsible for radio, defended FM broadcasting technology. It is indispensable "for the value creation of the broadcasters. In particular, he demanded that politicians "not allow the FM business model to be impaired" by a switch-off debate. And the politicians are compliant: There is hardly any willingness to finally set a realistic switch-off date. Many state chancelleries are saying that nothing is likely to be feasible before 2025.

Norway and Switzerland switch off

At least more and more stakeholders are recognizing that there needs to be a uniform regulation in Europe for the installation of technology-neutral digital chips for decoding different technologies. Even the state secretary in the responsible ministry for transport and digital infrastructure, Dorothee Bar, is now lobbying the EU to ensure that Brussels gives member states the power to ban the sale of purely analog radios – including cell phones with radio reception.

Sometimes it makes sense to set technical standards so that markets can develop in the first place

Without this EU directive, Germany cannot decree that only digital radios are allowed in stores, actually a crucial step for the market breakthrough of the technology that has been available on the market for 20 years.

But will Dorothee Bar be able to make herself heard by her party colleague Gunther Oettinger? The Brussels bureaucracy has not yet realized that in the tense relationship between network technologies and markets, it sometimes makes sense to set technical standards so that the markets can develop in the first place.

Switzerland and Norway are showing that it can be done differently, even though both countries entered the technology much later than Germany. In Norway, FM will be switched off completely in stages within a year, starting in 2017, and in Switzerland probably starting in 2020. Otherwise, FM licenses would have to be reissued for another ten years according to the law. In Switzerland, the switchover of the popular nationwide "Musikwelle" from medium wave to DAB in 2008 triggered a run on DAB receivers, the basis for rapid market penetration with digital devices. More than 40 percent of Swiss households now have a DAB radio.

Three hours off the air

DAB has also been attractive for private radio in Switzerland: a number of private radio stations have thus been given the opportunity to be broadcast throughout the country beyond the local and regional.

For tourists who then drive through Switzerland on their way to Italy in the next decade, this will probably mean: at least three hours off the air. This is because DAB receivers for cars are still far from being standard. As a rule, the German automotive industry offers such devices only at a considerable extra cost, even though it had agreed years ago to install the new reception technology quickly in new cars.

Things will get interesting again for Germany this spring. By April, the 20th annual report of the "Commission for the Determination of the Financial Requirements of the Broadcasting Corporations" (KEF) will be published. The trade media claim to have learned that instead of a specific switch-off date, KEF is now only asking for the designation of a "switch-off period" for FM. So here, too, a softening of the position.

A historic date would be appropriate: October 29, 2023, which would be the day on which Germany celebrates the 100th anniversary of radio.