Interview | Wednesday, 16 December 2009

From Marconi to digital radio broadcasting

Engineer Sergio D’Amico pioneered the advent of DAB digital radio in Malta. To some extent he also pioneered the service in Europe. He speaks to Karl STAGNO-NAVARRA about the new reality in broadcasting

The benefits and prospects of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) in Malta following the launch of DAB+ test transmissions started in Malta in July 2008. Since then, more than 60,000 DAB+ enabled radio sets have been sold in Malta

What is DAB?
DAB stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting and is part of the future of radio broadcasting.
DAB is the technology which broadcasts audio and data services that can be received in the Maltese Islands. With the right kind of tuner, you can receive a choice of stations without hiss or fade, unlike conventional FM and AM receivers.
DAB has the potential to offer listeners more choice of programmes from rock, pop, classical and easy listening, to spoken word, news and more. So whatever your mood, there is always something on DAB for you - subject to availability.
DAB is the new, involving way for listeners to tune into their favourite radio stations. Offering an exceptionally high sound quality, digital radio offers a host of exciting features to enhance the listening experience. These include:
- Access to scrolling text information, giving program information, track listings, news headlines and weather reports;
- A wider choice of shows and program highlights;
- Radios that tune by station name, not frequency, making it easy to find favourite stations;
- Unlike other services, DAB is totally free to the consumer. There are no monthly charges to pay;
Malta was the first country to roll out the latest variant of DAB, that is, DAB+. DAB+ allows more channels to be broadcast at higher quality and includes some exciting additions, such as the possibility of broadcasting 5.1 surround Sound.
Since its launch in October 2008, over 8,000 sets are now in circulation and the numbers are growing.
A variety of units are now available and prices start from as low as €60.
Digi B Network is committed to provide full indoor coverage across Malta and Gozo by 2010.

Could you explain your role?
Digi B Network won all available spectrum following an auction held by the MCA in 2006. It has put Malta on the forefront of digital radio by being the first country to roll out DAB+. Other countries like Italy, Australia, and Sweden are now following suit. Digi B Network is also involved in the manufacturing of DAB+ car stereos.

Is it affordable for all stations?
Apart from the direct benefits that the technology offers, such as extra clarity and no interference problems, DAB+ provides added opportunities to broadcasters.
Imminent changes in the Broadcasting Act will allow broadcasters to operate more than one station. This will allow them to attract more listeners whilst retaining old ones through parallel programming.
DAB will also allow new entrants into the market bringing in new investment. For the broadcasters, DAB is actually cheaper since they are not burdened by the distribution of their content.
Obviously not everybody is happy to see a change in the competitive landscape, and initial doubts are expected.

How does it work?
From the listener point of view, a DAB+ radio is all that is required. Whilst there is practically 100 per cent outdoor reception, some places might not yet enjoy indoor reception.
Digi B is committed to have make DAB available for indoor reception across Malta and Gozo by 2010.
In fact a network upgrade following the installation of a repeater has brought DAB in Zebbug, Gozo and the surrounding areas, making radio services available for the first time in places where FM reception is crippled by interference.
There are no more fees to pay and the beauty of it is that the value increases with time in terms of content. Just a few days ago a seasonal Xmas channel was launched which was readily available to all DAB radios at no extra expense.

Who can transmit on DAB? Can you receive DAB in Malta?
DAB has been available since 2008.

Is it the present or future of radio?
If it is to remain relevant radio has to step out of the analogue world. DAB+ is the future of radio because it will alter the way radio is consumed.

What stations are available on DAB?
Practically all nationwide licensed analogue FM stations, with the recent introduction of PBS services like Radio Malta and Magic FM. There are foreign channels such as BBC, Voice of America, Radio Uno, Radio Due, and Radio Tre. An Opera channel has started test transmissions. In 2010 a massive increase in services in envisaged.

What sets does the consumer need to have to receive DAB?
A DAB+ enabled set.

What are the benefits of DAB?

• ‘Hiss and crackle’ free reception;
• ·User friendly, for instance, tune by station name not frequency;
• ·More choice;
• ·Free-to-air services;
• ·Pause and Rewind on suitable devices;
• ·Dynamic text information which tells you what and who you are listening to;
• ·Electronic Program Guide (EPG) on suitable devices; and
• slide shows on suitable devices;

Are the sets affordable?
Current sets start from €60. Prices are expected to decrease as more countries adopt DAB+.

Are we to expect a migration from FM to DAB in the near future?
DAB has the potential to offer much more services than FM can offer and it is expected that listeners will use DAB as their main source of radio programs.
Having said that, some countries are discussing FM switch off.

In conclusion, what are the prospects for DAB in Malta?
Judging by the initial uptake, DAB has a guaranteed future in Malta. Digi B will be shortly introducing DAB+ car stereos and is currently investigating the introduction of EPG and Slideshow features to complement the audio services.
Radio is very popular and this is confirmed by both the regular BA surveys and by the amount of local radio stations. Yes, although the way media is being utilised is changing, radio is undoubtedly a part of the media spectrum and we are positioned through the use of DAB+ to play a role in that future.

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16 December 2009


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