Expected FM switch-offs across Europe are seen as offering opportunities for digital radio (Photo: WorldDMB)

Initiatives to replace FM with digital radio are speeding up across Europe, but the auto industry has been slow to follow suit in the car, broadcast executives say. That may be about to change as countries review the future of FM and begin switching off the nearly 80 year old radio platform.

Such a switch-off has already been decided in Norway, which will end FM transmissions in 2017. Switzerland is holding a referendum on digital radio this month and other European countries are also looking at the future of FM.

The end of FM spells problems for drivers whose cars cannot receive digital radio. In Norway, from 2017, these drivers will hear only silence. That’s more than merely an inconvenience. Many safety warning services are expected to move to digital radio in coming years. Without the ability to receive DAB+, the international digital radio standard, a driver won’t hear the alerts.

The case for digital radio is clear. “The FM spectrum is full, so it’s difficult to have new FM-based services,” said Patrick Hannon, head of WorldDMB, the global industry forum for digital radio. “That means there will be limited innovation and a strong risk of long-term decline.” Digital radio, on the other hand, offers higher reception quality at lower cost and an opportunity for a broad range of traffic information services to car drivers at no cost to the user, Hannon said.

Digital future

WorldDMB last month organized a conference in Brussels to highlight automotive opportunities offered by digital radio. The event was attended by officials from car manufacturers, governments and broadcasting companies. Speakers focused on what still needs to be done to get increased auto-industry support for digital radio.

Dietrich Schirm, a senior official in the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs, Media, Energy and Technology, said Europe needs to harmonize the various national approaches to communication and connectivity. But he left no doubt that digital radio is coming. “Everything that can be digital will be digital,” Schirm said.

Harmonization was a big issue at the Brussels conference. Widely varying rates of digital-radio penetration across the European Union’s 28 member countries are illustrative of the problems facing the broadcast industry. Whereas in Norway, 53 percent of households own a digital radio set and the percentage is 49 in the UK, Italy and Germany stand at 1 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

In France, only three big cities ”“ Paris, Nice and Marseille - have introduced digital radio, leading to low listening levels. To make sure digital radio penetration increases across Europe, WorldDMB has started discussions with the EU Commission to include the standard in the European Union’s digital agenda. But discussions with the Commission are still at an early stage. “There’s clearly an interest in Brussels in what’s happening in radio,” WorldDMB’s Hannon said.

Data show that radio listening, to a major extent, takes place in the car. Thus, broadcasters want to make sure DAB+ is avail- able in all new car models. In Britain, efforts to assure just that have been successful, said Laurence Harrison, technology and market development director at Digital Radio UK, an industry lobbying group. Last year, 64.2 percent of all new cars introduced in the UK had DAB or DAB+ installed as a standard feature. “We’ve seen fantastic support from the automakers,” Harrison said. The numbers are equally high in Norway, but in Germany, Europe’s biggest car market, only an estimated 10 percent of new cars came with digital radio last year.

Getting acceptance for the new radio technology in the car should, in theory, be easy, said Roger Lanctot, a telecommunications expert at consultants Strategy Analytics. “Drivers are seatbelted in the car; they have to listen,” he said, adding that, from a commercial point of view, contextual, location-based advertising targeting cars will provide a major new business opportunity. “Soon we’ll even know where those listeners are.”

Some carmakers have recently started to embrace the potential of digital radio. In France, market leader Renault has been slow in adopting the standard. “But this year, it suddenly has lots of cars with digital radio,” said Mathias Coinchon, senior project manager at the public service media alliance European Broadcasting Union (EBU). potes digital radio as one reason to

Radio industry officials don’t believe the various standards need to compete with each other. Jacqueline Bierhorst, who heads a 3 million-euro drive to promote digital radio in the Netherlands, said the standard is a means to “future proof” reception. “You can choose what suits you,” she said. And Digital Radio UK’s Harrison added: “We believe vehicle manufactur- ers should be building in FM, DAB and DAB+ as standard.” Many of the industry executives present in Brussels also said internet radio should be part of the package.

Common interface

There was consensus that, whatever forms of radio are in the car, channels should be accessible through one common interface. “In-car digital

fiat-500l-2014-300x199 In Italy, Fiat promotes digital radio as one reason to buy its 500L model (Photo: Fiat)

radio interfaces should feel like they’re keeping pace with Apple and Android’ said Hans Christian Andersen, CEO of Norwegian digital radio distributor Sahaga. Michael Hill, managing director of non-profit connected-radio developer Radioplayer, unveiled a common HMI that also has the ability to automatically switch from DAB+ to streaming to FM, depending on which standard offers the best signal quali- ty. “The system doesn’t ask,” he said, “it just does it.”

One of the clearest indications that the auto industry is warming to digital radio comes from Italy, where both Fiat and Nissan are promoting the feature as a reason to buy their cars. “In Italy today it’s seen as a plus for people to have digital radio in the car,” said Eugenio La Teana, head of R&D at Italy’s RTL 102.5 Hit Radio. Fiat is offering digital radio on its new 500L model and it is actively touting the feature. Nissan, meanwhile is also promoting the digital radio in its new Pulsar model in Italy.

By Arjen Bongard