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Broadcasting: Digital Radio

Volume 751: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will provide a timetable for the switchover of digital radio.

My Lords, the Government support a digital future for radio, but we are clear that listeners’ needs are at the heart of the transitional process. We set three benchmarks: listening via digital should be at 50%; national digital coverage should be comparable with FM; and local digital coverage should reach 90% of the population. Once these criteria have been reached, the Government will be in a position to take decisions on a potential future switchover and its timing.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. I declare an interest as a producer working at the BBC.

A few years ago, a clear timetable was set out for the switchover to digital television. It was very successful. Surely the same should be done for radio. It gives consumers certainty that they will need to engage with digital radio when buying new radio sets, and it gives the industry clarity. Does the Minister agree that without a government lead on this matter, a switchover will never take place, denying millions of listeners the opportunity to listen to a huge range of radio stations in much better quality?

My Lords, it is clearly important that a positive momentum is maintained. Indeed, the Digital Radio Action Plan has been working extremely effectively over the past three years. In addition, on 16 December last year, the Government announced a package of measures on coverage, content and cars to support the next phase of the development of digital radio and provide consumers with greater choice.

Can my noble friend assure us that before the switchover, he will be able to guarantee that one does not get these periodic silences in the middle of a digital programme, which can sometimes be very trying?

My Lords, I think that interruption of any service, whether it is analogue or digital, is equally trying. A research survey in Bath suggested that there is a view that digital provides better reception, but we clearly want to ensure that as many of the population as possible benefit from digital.

My Lords, in television it takes only 80 transmitters to reach 90% of the population but it takes more than 1,000 transmitters to reach the remaining 10%. We are now at the point in radio where it is a test of our resolve on public service broadcasting because it is frankly uneconomic. Is the Minister confident that the funding is in place to roll out coverage so that we reach something like 97% or 98% of the population?

My Lords, there is a distinction between what I would call the national network and the local digital network. Just recently the BBC, the Government and commercial radio have agreed to put in £7 million each—£21 million in all—to ensure that the local DAB network is extended so that a further 200 sites will be in place by the time the programme is completed, which I hope will be in 2016. That will enable another 4 million homes to benefit from digital.

My Lords, when there is a date for switchover to digital radio, will the Government provide a help scheme for vulnerable users such as was introduced to assist the switchover to digital television?

Certainly, my Lords, in the consideration about a switchover there will be all sorts of issues involving vulnerable people, to whom the noble Lord has referred, in ensuring that community radio continues in a range of sectors and that those members of the population get a good service.

My Lords, we are wasting time. We have not heard from the Liberal Democrats so we will hear from them, and then I am sure that the House would like to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell.

Thank you, my Lords. Businesswise, it would be good to know when local radio coverage on DAB will finally be rolled out across the whole country. In the mean time, as we head into a truly digital era where any radio station in the world can be heard on a mobile phone, surely historic and prescriptive regulations—such as how much music versus speech a radio station should contain—have become outdated. Therefore, as long as local news is protected on local radio and taken into consideration in the huge investment that media companies are putting into DAB, is it not time that these outdated restrictions were reviewed and removed?

My Lords, one of the things we want to do is to ensure, through Ofcom, that any unnecessary restrictions are removed. As I say, there will be all sorts of ways in which we can enjoy radio and I am sure that new technologies will produce even more.

My Lords, first, I apologise for trying to shout down my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. In light of the fact that old people depend so much on radio specifically, and on good transmission as they get older and deafer and need local information from local stations, could the agenda of the Government in this regard not also plead the care agenda?

I am sure that what the noble Baroness has said is very much in the Government’s mind. I certainly recognise that many of the more elderly members of the population rely on the radio. There is also a great place for community radio, which is very popular, and if there were any consideration of switchover we would consider reserving part of the FM spectrum so that that local community radio could continue as long as was needed.

My Lords, in the Minister’s first response, he said that there were three targets for achieving this DAB rollout. Is there not a fourth, which is the question of how many new cars have digital radio fitted? According to the latest figures, something like 42% are now fitted with digital radio. Can the Minister tell us what plan there is to increase that number?

My Lords, there is another objective: we need to work on cars. At the moment only one in 10 of our cars has digital, and it costs about £100 to convert them. This is one of the reasons why there has been a reflection that this needs to be consumer-led rather than what I would call Government-imposed. A number of the points that were announced on 16 December are precisely to encourage and help with the conversion. The Digital Radio Action Plan, including working with the motor industry and indeed with the DVLA and the DVSA, is all about helping consumers to understand how they can get the best deal.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that the national services may target 97% or 98% whereas local targets would reach 90%. Will he confirm that in Wales, Radio Cymru and Radio Wales will be regarded as national services, particularly since north-west Wales was identified in the September 2013 report as one of the areas of lowest reach?

I am confident that all parts of the United Kingdom should be well cared for by whatever switchover there may be.