The Rebirth of Radio

The UK is going radio ga-ga as Digital Audio Broadcasting sires an explosion of new content both mainstream and niche.

There are already 350 DAB radio stations and more are coming on stream every day. New channels specialise in everything from chart pop to Romanian goat herding music with news, sport, weather and education thrown in for good measure.

DAB is going to be HUGE - and we mean REALLY HUGE. Within the next decade some 27 million households in the UK will be listening to digital radio and the choice of content will make today's selection look like a mere sampler.

DAB features and functionality will converge with video, mobile, broadband and even satellite navigation technology to create whole new genres of product.

Death to FM

The key is in the way DAB works. Unlike FM broadcasting the radio station signal is a stream of digital code carried on a very high frequency analogue radio wave. Each multiplex carries around 2Mbps of downstream information, currently split between each radio station on each multiplex.

The DAB radio or tuner picks up the analogue carrier, demodulates the digital stream and assembles it back into analogue audio to listen to. No interference, no background hiss and a robust broadcast signal impervious to weather conditions or swaying trees etc.

It's only one-way of course, but think of it as 2Mbps broadband - going to every DAB radio you have, be it in the car, in the kitchen, in your home entertainment system or even in your mobile phone.

Content is clearly king with DAB but despite its lack of hiss or crackle, digital radio is a way off of being CD-quality sound. To cram more content on each multiplex radio stations share bandwidth, meaning that they must be compressed like MP3s.

The bit rate varies from low-rent local or niche stations at 64kbps mono to the flagship of DAB, Radio 3, which broadcasts primetime content at 192kbps stereo.

DAB fab

Digital Radio is one of the most exciting developing technologies of the day - but can you actually get it? DAB officially covers around 85-90% of the country and you can check whether you can receive it, and what channels you might receive, by putting your postcode into the DAB service finder at www.ukdigitalradio.com.

However as Digital One (the key DAB operator) is paranoid about potentially upsetting new DAB adopters, this checker is extremely pessimistic about the signal coverage.

Chances are that even if this website says you are out of luck, you may still be able to pick up a couple of multiplexes (up to 20 stations) with a good outdoor antenna.

The BBC has long provided a comprehensive DAB service and you can listen to its FM, Medium Wave and Long Wave stations - Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, Radio Five Live and the BBC World Service - on Multiplex 12B across the UK.

In 2002, the Beeb also added five new all-digital stations - BBC Five Live Sports Extra, BBC 6 Music, 1Xtra, BBC Asian Network and BBC 7. Information about BBC digital radio can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/digitalradio.

The Digital One network, meanwhile, hosts an array of commercial radio operators, including: Classic FM, Core, Planet Rock, TalkSport and Virgin Radio.

Numerous other local stations (GWR, Vibe, Chill, Jazz FM, Capital Disney etc) will also be represented depending on where you live in the UK.

The future of DAB

The future is even brighter for DAB however. There is pressure to switch off analogue broadcasting in the radio spectrum, which will ensure it growth through these formative years and the technology's potential is vast.

Radio programming with scrolling text information and live pause/rewind is already here and data casting to DAB-ready mobile phones is being trailed. BT and Virgin mobile have recently announced a pilot to deliver live TV broadcasts to mobile phones over the DAB network this summer.