Ireland’s FM radio switch-off won’t be happening any time soon

29 Apr 2015

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Unlike Norway and several other countries in Europe and Asia, Ireland has no plans to switch off its FM radio signal and move to digital – at least not for a very long time.

Last week it emerged that Norway is to become the first country in the world to turn off its FM frequency and switch over to Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) entirely by 2017. The move to DAB will provide Norwegian listeners with more diverse radio channel content than they have ever had before. There are already 22 DAB national channels compared to five national FM channels across Norway.

While several other countries in Europe and south-east Asia have begun similar processes, Ireland has no plans to set a final date for FM switch-off.

If anything, Ireland’s FM network is going from strength-to-strength, and yesterday RTÉ joined forces with the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) to launch Irish Radioplayer, which joins RTÉ’s radio stations with 34 other independent stations under one app on Android and iPhone.

The jointly developed Radioplayer app is available for free in the iTunes App Store and the Google Play Store and provides a way of finding every station broadcasting in Ireland from national stations to local stations.

“The phasing out of FM radio in Ireland is not under consideration,” a spokesperson for the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources told Siliconrepublic.com.

“The situation throughout Europe varies and there is no European-wide plan to cease FM broadcasting. While Norway may be considering switching off ‘national’ FM networks and some local networks in 2017, a large numbers of local and community radio stations will continue to operate on FM. FM will continue for the foreseeable future.”

The spokesperson explained that the Broadcasting Act 2009 provides for the development of digital radio in Ireland. This Act gives RTÉ the power to establish and operate a multiplex for the purposes of providing a digital sound broadcasting service and gives ComReg responsibility for licensing spectrum in respect of digital sound broadcasting services.

“With regard to the current availability of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) services in Ireland, RTÉ operates a DAB service from five sites around the country and there is also a commercial trial DAB services undertaken by a company called DB Digital Broadcasting. The trials are being operated from Three Rock in Dublin, and in the Cork area and, from what I understand, one is also planned for Limerick. Another company, called Total Broadcast, is also operating a trial DAB service and this one is in the Waterford area.”

The move to digital is happening at its own pace

RTÉ Radio’s director of operations JP Coakley said that in the UK one-third of radio listeners listen via DAB and in Norway the decision to switch off FM in 2017 was taken after a threshold of 50pc of radio listeners listening via DAB was surpassed.

However, Coakley said that there are currently no statistics available on DAB listenership in Ireland as the JNLR doesn’t currently measure DAB listenership.

“But we do know that there are approximately 420,000 digital receivers in Ireland.

“The other thing from a domestic point of view is we source most of our radios from the UK these days and it going to be hard to find a radio in stores that doesn’t have DAB capability. So there is unlocked potential.”

Coakley said that if Ireland was to mirror Norway’s decision at any point in the future it would require an investment plan that would have to be underwritten by the Government.

“It would make sense that RTÉ and the IBI would sketch out a plan and we would have to achieve criteria such as Norway had in terms of a 50pc reach ratio.

“Norway has a bigger network and was compelled to be decisive. We have 41 radio masts compared with Norway’s 2,000 masts. And you can’t run two systems in parallel without spending substantially. So Norway had to make a decision.”

If anything Coakley said that Ireland would need to march in step with other countries rather than plough its way into FM switch-off independently but developments like connected cars could propel DAB to be more widely accepted in Ireland.

But either way, Ireland won’t be switching off FM for a long time to come.

“While there are no plans at present to roll out DAB services on a national basis, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) will continue to monitor and consider the potential for the development of digital radio in Ireland,” the Department of Communications spokesperson added.

“In this regard, the BAI has supported various DAB trials, has organised research and has indicated in its Work Plan for 2014 to 2016 its intention to further discuss the potential for DAB or other types of digital radio services through stakeholder meetings during the period covered by the plan. Trials on other technologies, including DAB+ will be facilitated through ComReg’s Test and Trial and BAI’s content contracts where required.”

FM radio dial image via Shutterstock

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com