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September 14, 2010 11:02 pm
A government advisory body has warned that the proposed 2015 date for the digital radio switchover is “far too early”, and said that a rushed implementation of the scheme could exclude large swathes of listeners.
The Consumer Expert Group, which was created to advise on the digital television switchover and has since had its remit extended to the issues surrounding digital radio, said consumers were at risk of being “bullied” by the industry into buying new digital radios before the technology was ready or widely affordable.
“The target date for a digital switchover should be revised upwards as 2015 is realistically far too early,” the group said in a report submitted to the department for culture, media and sport.
In July, the government said it would press ahead with the Labour administration’s timetable for a switchover by 2015, as long as enough listeners could receive a sufficiently good signal.
Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, communications and the creative industries, said the new report would now make a “valuable contribution” as the government implemented its digital radio action plan.
“I am pleased we share the view that any switchover to digital radio should be driven by listeners.”
The plan for a radio switchover has aroused controversy since it was first laid out in the Digital Britain white paper in June 2009, with many listeners protesting that their analogue radios work perfectly well and do not need to be “upgraded” to digital.
However, the government argues that it will cost about £200m to keep the full national FM network running over the next 20 years, and says the money would be better spent on the more flexible digital platform, where there will be lots of space for new stations.
The debate now centres around when the switchover should occur. In its report published on Tuesday, the CEG said that a switchover date should only be announced when at least 70 per cent of radio listening is digital, in contrast to the 50 per cent figure set out in the original switchover criteria.
In the second quarter of 2010, only 24.6 per cent of radio listening was digital. In its report, the CEG said it was worried that a rushed switchover could leave some consumers in hard-to-reach areas without access to radio, due to the varying levels of digital coverage across the regions, while vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the disabled could also be left behind.
The driving force behind the switchover strategy thus far had been the radio industry, the report argued. It recommended that a full cost benefit analysis from the perspective of users should be carried out “as a matter of urgency”.
However Ford Ennals, the chief executive of Digital Radio UK, the organisation tasked with accelerating digital listening, denied that the report would completely overturn the government’s existing switchover plans.
“What [the report] is really saying is, ‘When you’re going through this transition, make sure vulnerable people are taken care of’. I think that’s worth restating,” he said. “But a lot of what they ask for in the report is already captured in the government’s digital radio action plan.”
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