Norway is killing FM radio and folks aren't happy

Norway is becoming the first nation in the world to dump FM radio

Norway has started switching off FM transmitters today, becoming the first nation in the world to dump the 80-year-old standard. The changeover to Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) will give citizens more stations, better coverage, program time-shifting and more, the government says. However, the majority are against the changeover, according to a recent poll. "We are simply not ready for this yet," MP Ib Thompson told Reuters.

There are millions of radios in houses, summer homes and boats that will no longer work, and only a quarter of the nation's cars have DAB radio. Though much of Europe changed smoothly from analog to digital TV, most folks were able to get adapter boxes for under 25 euros ($30) or so. The same can't be said for FM -- it reportedly costs between 1,000 and 2,000 kroner ($120 - $230) for a DAB car radio adapter. "It's completely stupid, I don't need any more channels than I've already got," 72-year-old Eivind Sethov told the AFP in Oslo.

Norway has been prepping the switch for years, though, with DAB running alongside FM since 1995. (The US uses HD radio, which transmits both analogue and digital FM bands simultaneously.) Right now, there are 22 national digital stations, but only five can be packed into the analog FM bands. Switching to digital will also increase coverage and reduce transmission costs, as it is difficult and expensive to get FM signals into Norway's fjords and mountainous regions.

Nationally owned chain NRK will be the first to turn off its FM transmitters, with private stations following later in the year. Broadcasting chief Thor Gjermund Eriksen told Aftenposten that he's confident, but anticipates some early turmoil. "We expect a big rush," he said. With the gradual transition, though, Eriksen hopes that people will take action once they notice what's happening. "We believe that many people will be in touch when they discover that they have lost some of their NRK channels."

Other Euro countries will follow suit, depending on how it goes in Norway. Switzerland and Denmark have made a strong push for digital radio, and Britain says it may turn off FM once half of listeners are using digital formats. The UK recently launched "multiplex" digital stations, despite reported reception issues and other problems. While France and other nations aren't convinced, successful digital switchovers in neighboring countries might tip the scales there, too.

One area that hasn't been discussed much is the learning curve. First developed in the 1930s, FM radio is one of the last 20th century technologies to cede to the digital age. By switching to DAB, Norway is cutting off a large group of people, especially the elderly, from one of the few kinds of tech they know how to use. While the nation is one of the more technologically advanced in the world, the switchover may be the most difficult for those folks.

© Getty Images isfjord radio. svalbard. norway

Norway Is First Nation to Switch Off FM Radio

As Norway switches off its FM radio network this week, other nations have abandoned similar plans, leaving the Scandinavian country a lonely beacon of digital-only broadcasting in a world that’s rapidly moving on to music streaming and podcasts.

The switch to digital audio broadcasting, a first for any country, will be watched closely by other European nations, which are starting to question the benefits of shutting down analog networks. Success in Norway may be the last hope for enthusiasts and electronics retailers to revive digital-radio plans that have largely ground to a halt in the rest of the world.

“Norway is a thought leader, certainly a technology leader,” Ford Ennals, chief executive officer of Digital Radio UK, said in a telephone interview. “In the U.K., we are definitely more cautious. We want it to be listener-led. We don’t want to force everyone to do this.”

Norway’s blueprint to replace FM has been in place for years, originating with its first digital broadcasts back in 1995. The technology offers better sound than analog FM, is easier to tune and more affordable for broadcasters because it uses spectrum more efficiently. But in the intervening decades, a different technology took hold: internet radio and music streaming from companies such as Spotify Ltd. and Apple Inc., and Pandora Media Inc. in the U.S.

The trend isn’t likely to reverse. New cars are routinely equipped with dashboards that connect to the internet and smartphones through services such as Android Auto and Apple Carplay. At last count, Spotify had 40 million paying users worldwide and Apple Music counted 20 million. There are dozens more services -- streaming lets consumers create their own playlists, and they can pay to avoid commercials. Traditional radio stations have also gone online.

Norway is starting by winding down FM signals in Bodo, north of the Arctic Circle, with the rest of the country to follow later in 2017. The capital, Oslo, will be hit Sept. 20, although many local radio stations will be allowed to continue broadcasting on the FM dial for the next five years.

For a sparsely-populated nation like his, keeping FM alive wasn’t an alternative, said Ole Jorgen Torvmark, chief executive officer of Digital Radio Norway. In Norway, 74 percent of the population have one or more DAB radios, he said.

“A prerequisite for investing in a new digital network and new channels was a closing of the FM net,” Torvmark said. “We wouldn’t have been here today with a new network and channels if we didn’t have a closing date.”

Not Convinced

Norwegians aren’t convinced. A recent poll showed that 66 percent of the population oppose the change.

In neighboring Sweden, DAB is seen as a technology made obsolete by the internet. DAB advocates like Modern Times Group AB and consumer-electronics retailers have been rebuffed by critics who argue that an FM shutdown would be costly, unpopular and risk deteriorating the capacity to communicate with the public in crises. After two decades of trials and discussions, Sweden scrapped FM replacement plans in June 2015. The National Audit Office said a switch would be “out of step with other societal trends.”

In Canada, regulators stopped renewing digital licenses after big cities like Toronto and Montreal carried services for a decade without much consumer enthusiasm. The picture is similar in Finland. In Switzerland, the plan is still for FM to be replaced by digital and be phased out by 2024. The U.S. uses a different standard, HD Radio, which can broadcast stations simultaneously in both digital and analog within the same channel.
There are also millions of radio sets across Europe that would have to be replaced or equipped with a converter. Governments too are mindful that consumers haven’t embraced the technology. Digital Radio UK’s Ennals believes Britain will switch, but is at least five years away.

“I don’t think the U.K. has ever wanted to be the first here and we’re very pleased we can draw on lessons from Norway,” said Ennals. “Norway being a success may embolden the government to say ‘OK, let’s get on with this.’”

Norway will become the first country to ditch FM radio

JANUARY 8, 2017 —All ears will be on Norway next week as it becomes the first country to switch off FM broadcasts and move entirely to digital.

Digital audio broadcasting, or DAB, is a newer standard offering a number of advantages over traditional analog signal, including the potential to carry a greater variety of stations with clearer sound. Not everyone is happy about the change, however, with a recent poll showing a majority of the population stands opposed to the upgrade.

The switch won’t happen overnight. The northern county Nordland will lead the way on Wednesday, with the rest of the country following suit over the course of the year.

The primary reason is cost. The government estimates that FM is eight times as pricey, and some stations are currently broadcasting on both. Focusing resources on digital is predicted to bring annual savings of more than $23 million (200 million Norwegian crowns), which the government plans to invest in new radio stations.

“Radio digitisation will open the door to a far greater range of radio channels, benefiting listeners across the country. Listeners will have access to more diverse and pluralistic radio content, and enjoy better sound quality and new functionality,” Minister of Culture Thorhild Widvey said in a statement.

And there will be plenty of space for all that new content too. Digital technology has a higher tolerance for overlapping broadcasts, a practice called multiplexing. Taking advantage of this feature has already allowed Norway to greatly expand the number of national radio stations.

“Whereas the FM system only had space for five national channels, DAB already offers 22, and there is capacity for almost 20 more,” Widvey explains.

But not everyone is convinced.

When the government announced the change in 2015, more than half of radio listeners were already in the habit of tuning in daily on digital, but critics worry that figure is too low. Reuters reports that two million cars lack the necessary equipment, which means that, without a costly upgrade, they won’t have access to emergency broadcasts.

Much of the population is unhappy too. A recent poll found that 65 percent of Norwegians are against the switch, with only 19 percent in support. A car adapter can cost as much as $175.

DAB stations are broadcasting in 35 countries, many of which will be watching Norway’s transition closely. Switzerland has scheduled an FM shutdown for 2020, and the UK and Denmark are considering similar moves, the CBC reports. “Many countries are now looking to Norway to learn,” said Ole Jørgen Torvmark , CEO of Digital Radio Norway.

As for the United States, FM radio fans are safe for now. A proprietary digital standard called HD radio exists, but coverage is less extensive than subscription-based satellite radio competitors.

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