Digital radio switchover: what you need to know

Digital radio switchover: what you need to know
Digital radio: your questions answered

After rumour followed speculation followed rumour, it has been announced in typically laborious fashion that no firm date has been set for the digital radio switchover in the UK.

This doesn't mean that the digital switchover for radio is never going to happen, but it does put a red line through the 2015 date that was laid down back in 2010.

But what does this delay actually mean for digital radio? Should we all invest in DAB radios now even though a switchover date is no longer in sight? And how in the name of Wogan do you get digital radio into your old, very analogue car?

TechRadar was one of the lucky few to be invited to this year's Go Digital conference where answers were given (and more questions raised), so here's everything that is driving the UK gaga when it comes to digitising our airwaves...

When will the UK switchover to digital?

Ed Vaizey, UK minister for culture, communication and creative industries, revealed that he wasn't going to put a date on the digital switchover (very helpful) but did announce that the government was entering into "phase two" of the digital radio switchover which will bring a new national multiplex, called Digital 2, to expand the reach and the amount of digital radio stations across the UK.

The Digital 2 multiplex will mean more digital radio stations, which can only be a good thing for radio listeners.

What's the reason for the delay?

We are sorry to say it is YOU. Well, you if you haven't yet bought yourself a DAB radio and gone digital.

Vaizey didn't mean this in a horrible way (we don't think), but explained that he has always said that "it is the radio listener that will push the drive to digital." He said that at the moment "it is not the time to switchover but is emphatically the time for the next phase."

Cutting through his political prose, there are not enough people listening to digital radio to make the switchover a priority – 35% of the UK at the moment listen digitally and he isn't going to do anything until that number is up past 50%.

Go Digital

Ed Vaizey pushing the green button at Go Digital

Er, when will that be then?

Tentatively, the switchover will be seven years from now – in 2020. Vaizey wouldn't be pushed on an actual date but people in the know tell us this is a decent date to expect the digital switchover to take place.

Ford Ennals, CEO of Digital Radio UK, is personally backing 2020, for example, believing that it "is not a bad target."

He explained at the GoDigital conference: "2015 has been taken off the table but 2020 is definitely possible."

What has to happen before this?

A lot. Before a date for the switchover can take place, over 50% of the UK needs to be listening to digital radio. And herein lies the 'chicken and egg' situation.

Essentially, the government doesn't want to set a date until more people are DAB ready. But to get more people DAB ready the digital radio industry want a date from the government.

This isn't stopping Arqiva putting in the digital groundwork, though. It played a big part in the TV switchover and now it is erecting masts up and down the country that will boost digital radio coverage both in the home and the car.

According to Steve Holebrook, MD of Arqiva, if all goes well the digital radio coverage in the UK will be the equivalent to FM by 2016.

To reach that point, 200 more sites will get masts and seven new multiplexes will be commissioned which will bring in 8 million more DAB listeners to the UK. Currently only 70% of homes can receive local DAB and this is being improved to 90% which will make local radio stations happy.

What about the car situation?

This is where it gets interesting. Unlike the TV switchover, the transition from analogue to digital in radio has to include cars.

Marc Chacksfield

Marc Chacksfield is the Editor In Chief, at DC Thomson. He started out life as a movie writer for numerous (now defunct) magazines and soon found himself online - editing a gaggle of gadget sites, including TechRadar, Digital Camera World and Tom's Guide UK. At Shortlist you'll find him mostly writing about movies and tech, so no change there then.