Expert has good news and bad on DAB Radio

After MBIE finally pulled the plug on a decade-long digital radio trial, the government has to decide if it will green-light the technology — shaking up the industry in the process.
Andrew Dubber says DAB Radio is a great technology. But for New Zealand, the moment to introduce it has probably passed.

The good news for DAB Radio advocates: Expert Andrew Dubber says the Digital Audio Broadcasting rollout in the UK has been a success.

More Britons are now listening to stations via DAB transmissions than FM. The tipping point is coming when FM can be switched off.

"DAB has been pretty great for radio in the UK, Mr Dubber says.

DAB sounds better and makes more efficient use of spectrum, allowing for a broader selection of stations, from commercial to community channels.

"It helps to have a well-funded public broadcasting organisation driving it," he adds. In the UK's case, that was the BBC.

He says the promise of CD-quality audio hasn't always been met, but that consumers have benefited from more stations, and expanded reach for existing stations.

"I'd say it's probably done its job now."

Moment passed
The bad news: Mr Dubber has doubts DAB Radio will take root in New Zealand.

"My take is that there was definitely a time to do this, and that moment has probably now passed," he says.

Although Kordia has complained about MBIE finally forcing it to stop its 12-year DAB trial, the technology could have been better served by Kordia voluntarily wrapping up the trial a lot earlier, when internet radio was less of a presence.

Mr Dubber was a lecturer in broadcasting at AUT before he left for a similar role at the University of Birmingham and then moving to the private sector as a music festival director and adviser to the hot startup Bandcamp.

Fifteen years ago, he wrote his thesis on DAB Radio. Five years ago, he wrote a book on it.

When New Zealand's DAB Radio trial kicked off, back in 2006, Mr Dubber saw strong potential for the technology.

But even then, he noted objections from the industry that DAB Radio could quickly become obsolete.

Today, that argument can be pressed a lot harder, due to the rise of internet-delivered radio.

The Radio Broadcasters Association, representing the NZME and MediaWorks commercial FM duopoly, has been limited and guarded in its public statements (and it's been notable that neither participated in the trial), but it's likely this argument has been pushed behind the scenes.

And it's probable that the "moment-has-passed for DAB Radio" line will only be stronger once the government finally makes up its mind. 

Dear John letters dispatched
MBIE, which administered the DAB Radio trial conducted by Kordia in Auckland and Wellington, officially informed Kordia on Friday that the trial would be wrapped-up by the end of June. On Tuesday, triallists including NBR were officially informed. NBR publisher Todd Scott expressed his anger to Kordia that the state-owned company had not been upfront about the trial's pending termination.

Kordia has appealed to Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran to extend the trial again (which has already been granted several extensions). But MBIE says the trial was already overdue to wrap up given all the necessary technical data had been collected (and, behind the scenes, NBR understands there were complaints from the FM incumbents that Kordia had been running the trial for so long that it was becoming a de facto second network).

From trial to policy phase
MBIE said it was time to move on to the policy analysis phase, during which the Ministry for Culture and Heritage will assess the trial in New Zealand, how DAB Radio rollouts have gone in other countries, and rival technologies like HD Radio (a direct competitor to the DAB Radio standard in the US) and internet radio, which is on the rise everywhere.

On the record, C&H would only say that its work on DAB had no deadline, and that government policy changes would be required for a commercial rollout. But NBR understands assessment of the trial is far down the overworked, understaffed ministry's to-do list. 

Bang or whimper?
Reading between the lines of comments of MBIE and C&H officials who spoke to NBR, it seems the most likely scenario is that DAB will quietly die on the back-burner.

But even if it is taken seriously, the best case scenario for policy work, then a law change, is probably around two years. By that time, internet radio will be more pervasive. There will be more cars with the likes of Apple Play and Android Play for one-click access to streaming stations, and Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees will be rolling out 5G networks for better, wider and higher data cap mobile internet coverage.

And even if Ms Curran does decide to push ahead with DAB, it will be a matter of whether the FM incumbents get to simulcast on DAB frequencies; whether DAB spectrum is auctioned – and if it is, whether its a process that encourages new market participants or favours the MediaWorks/NZME duopoly.

For Mr Dubber, there was a time when DAB could have been used to crack the New Zealand market open. But that time was 2006 to 2010. Now, after Kordia's 12-year trial, it's a lot harder to make that argument.

Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read more on trial participants and the technology behind DAB in NBR's initial article here.

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