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31/03/2010

Digital Radio Switchover 'Confused'

A powerful committee of peers has warned of a "major public reaction" against radio's digital switchover, scheduled for 2015.
The House of Lords Communications Committee said that unless the Government makes a better case for the changes and keep the public informed about its impact there will be problems as there is "public confusion and industry uncertainty" over the switchover.
There are currently between 50-100 million analogue/FM radios in the UK, which will become largely redundant after 2015 when national and regional radio stations are switched to a digital only service.
There are also around 20 million car radios that will require converters in order to receive a digital service.
The Committee express concern that due to the lack of public information people are still buying analogue radios which will be out of date in a few years time. They point out that retailers gave evidence stating that they are not getting adequate information on switchover plans so are unable to offer consumers accurate guidance when making purchases.
The report also points out that car manufacturers are still fitting analogue radios in new cars and digital radios will not be fitted as standard in all cars until 2013.
The Committee contrast radio switchover with the television switchover programme. They found that the benefits of TV switchover were well understood particularly as it enabled viewers to access new channels.
In contrast thay said that surveys show that the public are generally happy with the present FM radio system and with the range of programmes that are provided.
The Committee recommend the Government take urgent steps on a range of actions including providing a detailed plan for universal digital radio coverage including how it is to be funded; developing a policy for the long term use of FM; devising a help scheme for radio switchover financed by general taxation rather than the BBC licence fee; ensuring new digital car radios are fitted with a multi-standard chip to enable their use overseas and encouraging radio manufacturers and retailers to devise a sensible scrappage scheme for redundant analogue radios.
The Committee also recognised the importance of radio to the aged and disadvantaged groups and favours a help scheme for radio switchover, similar to that in place for television switchover.
However the Committee point out that take up of the Help Scheme for TV switchover for vulnerable groups is running much lower than forecast - at 18% rather than the predicted 65% - and the Help Scheme is heading for a major underspend. This money was raised through the licence fee, which is a regressive tax.
The Committee also point out that the BBC and Government disagree over whether the cost of universal digital coverage of their national stations can be met under the current licence fee. The report said that it is essential that a "firm and unambiguous" plan for funding the completion of build-out of the digital radio service is put in place as soon as possible.
The report concludes that given the amount of investment already made in digital radio, reversing the current policy would turn "confusion into an utter shambles" and said that, although achieving radio switchover in 2015 is ambitious, it does not favour a change of target date at this stage.
Commenting Lord Fowler, Chairman of the House of Lords Communications Committee, said: "Virtually all the witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee spoke of the need for greater clarity of policy in digital radio switchover.
"In particular the public are not being told what radio switchover will mean for them. Millions of FM/analogue radios will become largely redundant. Millions of car owners will have to fit converters to receive a digital service.
"It is urgent that the Government now settle policy and in addition step up their efforts to inform the public. There is a danger of a public backlash if this is no done."
(BMcC/GK)
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