Any switchover is going to be a while off yet. The Government has committed itself to the change, but there is no word on when this will be. The suggestion is that nothing will be turned off until 2017 at the earliest, and probably as late as 2020. Even when it happens, an FM service will remain for smaller, independent stations.
Before a final switchover date is chosen, the Government has said it wants digital coverage to match that of FM transmissions. In addition, it says that half of all radio listening will have to be done on digital sets. According to the Radio Joint Audio Research figures, 28.2% of current listening is via digital.
Despite the potentially distant switchover date, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has said that the whole car industry will offer the technology at least as an option by the end of 2013 (see table on p110). That could be optimistic, because only 15 makes have firm plans to offer the technology across their ranges by then.
However, the SMMT reckons there is an appetite for the technology. The number of car buyers opting for digital radio has rocketed; 18% of new owners chose to include it in September 2011, a 340% increase over the 5% of people who bought it the previous year.
Its reassuring, then, that the biggest-selling and most affordable brands are either offering the technology on multiple models now or are on track to get there by 2013.
Fords top-level trims already bring digital technology to the Fiesta, Focus, C-Max, Grand C-Max, Kuga, S-Max and Galaxy. DAB is also already optional lower down the range on all models, except for the Ka. Our plans for DAB will be determined by customer demand, the cost of installation and the timing of the planned digital switchover, says Ford Britains product marketing manager, Steve Humbles.
Volkswagen says it will offer the technology as standard by the end of 2012, and Vauxhall intends to offer it on every new model from now on, the first being the Astra GTC.
Will coverage be good enough?
The UK intends to invest heavily in the quality of the digital signal over the coming years, and the goal is to offer FM-matching 97% coverage by the end of 2015.
The organisation Digital Radio UK says that significant strides are being made, with coverage set to reach 93% by the end of 2011. It claims that 116 new transmitters have been installed over the past three years to boost the reach and strength of the digital signal. However, much of the effort has been directed towards urban areas, and the next intention is to help motorists.
Tim Davie, the BBCs director of audio and music, said the next stage of coverage building will focus on improving coverage on motorways and major roads.