Why DAB radio in the UK is broken, and how to fix it

BMW i8

All BMWs come with standard DAB. Pity the bitrates are so low

Music on the move

"DAB radio is supposed to offer better quality and more stations, but the more it does the latter, the less it can deliver the former."

But as soon as you are on the move, the streaming proposition breaks down. We tried streaming music over EE's 4G network from London to Bath via the M4 – one of the UK's major trunk roads. It just doesn't work.

OK, buffering technology helps a lot. But it's not really a solution for live broadcast. If you want to listen to the news when it's actually news, you need an essentially unbroken stream and certainly no major breaks in connectivity. The UK's 3G and 4G networks aren't even close to being able to delivering that.

Fundamentally, then, streaming over the internet is a woefully inefficient way to go about getting live audio into cars.

As for what is to be done, part of the answer is simple. Switch the UK to DAB+. That's the follow up to DAB that supports the AAC codec which is more efficient even than MP3.

Jump ship to DAB+

Most recent DAB radios either already support DAB+ or can with a firmware upgrade. Yes, it will be a bit painful for owners of older DAB radios that don't do DAB+. But the simple fact is we jumped too fast into DAB. The fundamental idea is sound, it's just the current implementation that sucks.

There are other issues to solve, of course, most of which are beyond our pay grade.

In an ideal world the spectrum available to DAB+ would be upped and the cost to access the network would be lowered, making it commercially viable for new entrants and commercial stations that amounted to more than a computer in a broom cupboard playing a pre-programmed playlist.

The first step in getting anything done is raising awareness. If you remotely care about having decent radio quality in your car, start by telling everyone you know about the awfulness of DAB.

Indeed, any day now the government is expected to announce plans to open bidding on a new DAB multiplex - essentially a second parallel DAB network. Maybe the second multiplex can be DAB+ allowing the two technologies to be run in parallel for a time.

If that sounds promising, as ever the danger is that the bigger the fee paid at auction, the more stations licence holders will need to cram in to make the whole enterprise a goer.

Anyway, it's galling to see DAB continue to be marketed as a cutting edge technology delivering crystal-clear digital sound. We need to pull the rug out from under that fallacy. If paying punters universally sneer at the notion that DAB is a high quality service – as they should do – the message will surely begin to get through.

Let's get those noses crinkling and the tide turning against DAB in its current form. And for goodness sake, if we do get a chance to change the system let's get it right next time.

More car tech stories

car tech news


Technology and cars. Increasingly the twain shall meet. Which is handy, because Jeremy (Twitter) is addicted to both. Long-time tech journalist, former editor of iCar magazine and incumbent car guru for T3 magazine, Jeremy reckons in-car technology is about to go thermonuclear. No, not exploding cars. That would be silly. And dangerous. But rather an explosive period of unprecedented innovation. Enjoy the ride.