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Broadcasting: Digital Radio

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider the proposal to phase out analogue radio and replace it entirely with digital radio.

My Lords, the Government will be looking closely at proposals for a digital radio upgrade, with some continuing role for FM. The Government recognise that it is important that any switchover date realistically reflects consumer engagement, market readiness and financial constraints, and the Government will work to ensure this.

I thank the noble Lord for his comments. Can he go a little further? Will he accept that there are still many things wrong with digital radio? Will he assure us that he will do something, for example, to cope with excessive costs of coverage, the need for more energy and the often muffled and fizzy noise that it makes? Can some of that be cured before analogue radio finally disappears?

I have to confess that I have an interest in this matter. I am a partner in a vineyard where we regularly use analogue radio all night to stop the badgers eating our grapes.

My Lords, in researching possible supplementary questions, I was led to believe that it is not fizzy. Indeed, 75 per cent of the people asked say that digital radio is better in terms of the quality of what they can hear. That is the information I have been given and I repeat it to the House. However, 24 per cent of radio listenership is through digital radio—that having risen from 20 per cent last year. Much is being done to work up to the switchover, which is perhaps even more than an aspiration. The previous Government suggested that it would happen in 2015. I have not heard of plans for that to change, but there is still a lot to be done.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that about 99 per cent of the cars in this country cannot receive digital radio?

My Lords, I understand that many cars cannot receive digital radio and that it will be 2013 before most cars, as they are manufactured, have digital radio sets built into them. There is the possibility—the Government are working with the industry on this—of having switchover sets placed in motor cars.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the latest issue of the digital radio newsletter recognised that reception still needs to be improved both in its reach and in the signal strength? What steps are the Government taking independently to validate the industry’s stated coverage, and what contact is currently taking place with the consumer expert group to ensure that the concerns of consumers continue to be taken seriously?

My Lords, there are many groups that the Government are involved with at DCMS in working up the way forward. I shall not cite all the discussion groups that are taking place, but lots of work must be done before there is a switchover. For example, I said that 24 per cent are presently listening; that must be at least 50 per cent before there is a switchover. Nearly 90 per cent are able to receive the signal; that must be nearer 98 per cent before there is a switchover.

My Lords, as chairman of the Communications Select Committee, which looked at this issue, I do not entirely recognise the first figure that the Minister gave on the approval rate for digital radio in this country. Is he aware that there is a whole range of problems? About 20 million cars will need windscreen converters once switchover takes place, and there is the cost to the radio industry, which was asked by the previous Government to plan for switchover. Would not a sensible way forward be to have a longer debate in this House on the issues, perhaps based on the excellent report of the Select Committee?

I pay tribute to the noble Lord and his committee. I read the summary of the report and there is a response to it from the Government dated June. Within the next couple of weeks, the Minister in the Commons will make an announcement on the road map forward on digital switchover.

My Lords, I have given notice of this supplementary. Can the Minister say what plans the BBC has in an all-digital world to provide an accurate time signal at least equivalent to its analogue signal in 1924, which was accurate to one-fifth of a second on a pendulum clock? If the BBC cannot improve its current digital time signal, which has a variation of four seconds, will the Government insist that in future a MSF radio clock is fitted to all digital receivers, thereby providing a timescale with an accuracy of one-tenth of a second UTC for digital listeners?

My Lords, the noble Lord gave me notice of his question, and it is a good job that he did. We are not aware of any plans for the BBC to change the delivery of the time signal. However, I understand that the BBC already compensates for the time delay in analogue radio broadcasts. Should a digital switchover take place, the BBC would equally be able to compensate for any time delay in the broadcast of digital radio transmissions. The Government have no plans to add MSF radio clocks to digital radios at this time. However, the Government are willing to discuss this matter with manufacturers.

Given that the Government are continuing their commitment to provide broadband to every household in this country by 2012, and given the very rapid development of technologies around mobile phones, is it not the case that this debate is totally irrelevant and that the future lies with internet radio, not with digital or analogue?

The noble Lord may be right in what he says, but it was not quite about the Question, so I am not too well placed to answer that point.