What format for digital radio in NZ?

BY KINETA KNIGHT
Last updated 09:01 15/12/2009

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Sky TV and Freeview have moved New Zealand television into the digital age and the radio industry is now scouting a similar switch. But there are big questions that need answers before the radio industry is ready for a jump into the future.

The broadcasting infrastructure SOE, Kordia, has been trialling a digital service, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), in Auckland and Wellington since November 2006, and a group of commercial broadcasters are trialling HD Radio as another possible digital format.

But there are still uncertainties over which digital option to choose, how best to introduce it and control growth, what impact it will have on existing stations, and what will happen to the existing market if new stations arise.

Many New Zealand commercial FM frequency licences expire in 2011, and few FM licence holders will want to renew analogue technology for long periods unless there is more certainty on technology.

One problem is that there's little consensus on digital radio options, and indeed whether a country the size of New Zealand, with a plethora of station choice already, needs more choice?

DAB is currently one of the most popular forms of digital radio, being used by approximately 1000 stations worldwide, however, DAB+ (an upgraded version of DAB that Australia has recently rolled out), DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale), DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting), HD Radio, and Satellite Radio are other variations of the medium.

Britain introduced DAB in 1995 and about eight million Britons have bought a DAB radio set, so not only are they being rewarded with more station choice, improved reception and in some cases a better quality of sound, but it also means they are ready to be part of the proposed digital switchover there in about 2017.

DAB has been ideal for Britain, but also controversial, as it has allowed broadcasters to establish new national radio stations. This was important because the only national stations in Britain (other than a national classical station) were from the BBC. Digital radio has allowed successful regional stations, and new stations, to go national on DAB. Of course it has also allowed other stations, that would not have been given the chance on a loaded FM dial, to broadcast on DAB.

While both DAB+ and HD Radio are still being trialled in New Zealand, British broadcasters at the forefront of DAB said the most practical advice to New Zealand was that someone needs to make a decision as to the future of radio. Whichever option New Zealand chooses is not entirely relevant: the point is someone has to decide whether the future is digital.

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Ofcom's Jon Heasman warns those not adopting DAB to be careful of being left behind in the radio world by not following the natural process of moving from analogue to some form of digital.

Broadcasters who wait for something better to come along will also miss out and end up doing nothing, said GCap's Nick Piggott.

The reason HD Radio appeals to commercial broadcasters in New Zealand is because it uses FM frequencies they already own, according to Aaron Olphert from Kordia. And if the broadcasters did opt for DAB+ they would face fresh advertising competition from new radio stations.

Clearly there are still uncertainties over which service to use, how best to introduce it and control growth, what impact it will have on existing stations, and what will happen to the existing market when new stations are created.

But fortunately, like Australia, New Zealand has Britain's model of trial and error to use as a blueprint for digital radio. And more so for New Zealand, Australia will be a good example of how to start up and run DAB+ in the 21st century.

If New Zealand radio is to move and evolve into the digital era a decision needs to be made before the FM licences expire in 2011. A proactive approach on which digital option to use is imperative rather than passively watching while other countries dominate in radio technology.

* Kineta Knight is a freelance print and radio journalist. This article is based on her University of Canterbury study, The Digitalisation of Radio: How the United Kingdom has Handled the Rollout of Digital Radio Lessons for New Zealand, May 2009.

Read her full report by visiting saps.canterbury.ac.nz and searching with Kineta Knight.

- The Press

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