Norway is set to become the first country in the world to switch off its FM radio networks in favour of DAB digital radio in 2017. The process will start on 11th January, 2017, when the region of Nordland will switch off FM networks, with each other region in the country following suit and making the switch at some point within the year.
Some local stations will continue transmitting on FM for a few more years, but national commercial stations and Norway’s public network NRK will only be available on DAB from 2017. Norwegians will see their choice of national radio stations increase from 5 to 25.
Norway is already one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to DAB coverage, with roughly 99.5% of the population having access to DAB reception according to WorldDAB. This is a great achievement given Norway’s geography, with its many islands and mountains. There is also an ambitious project underway to bring DAB radio coverage to the hundreds of tunnels across the country, offering drivers unbroken radio coverage on their journeys.
Norway’s FM infrastructure was outdated and would have needed significant investment to upgrade. This was one of the drivers in encouraging the country’s government to plan for a digital switchover, along with the fact that DAB can accommodate more channels than FM.
Norway was also far more ready for a switchover than most European countries. Norway was one of the earliest countries to adopt DAB radio, with its first digital stations becoming available in 1995. By December 2016, 7 out of 10 Norwegians owned a DAB radio according to NRK. However, only 3 in 10 cars had a DAB radio, which is a cause for concern.
Why not let people switch at their own speed?
Norway has a very challenging topography with a lot of mountains and islands. To keep both FM and DAB running would require lots of transmitters, which would cost 200 million Kronor (about £20 million) a year extra according to NRK. Also, since the majority of Norwegian households already had a digital radio and DAB was becoming the more common way of listening to the radio, it was considered a good time to simplify things and bring costs down by switching off FM.
Couldn’t Norway just switch to internet streaming?
It might seem strange to invest so heavily in DAB radio at a time when broadband internet is so widely available. A lot of people expect online streaming to become the dominant way of listening to the radio, but there is still a need for offline radio.
There are still lots of places where accessing the internet would be difficult or impossible, for example on fishing boats. Radio is also free to listen to, and is more likely to be accessible after a shock event like a natural disaster.
The decision to switch off FM networks has been very controversial, and has become the subject of much debate among the country’s major political parties. There have been many calls to delay the switchover process, but it looks set to go ahead on schedule.
Many Norwegians are frustrated that their AM/FM radio will become defunct overnight, and feel that the change has been unnecessarily quick and forced. A poll done for Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet in 2016 showed that 65% of Norwegians opposed the switchover. Since 2017 is an election year in Norway, the switchover could have negative consequences for the ruling Høyre party.
Several groups have particular concerns about the consequences of switching FM off. For example, fishermen in Nordland, the region where FM will be switched off in January, rely on the radio for weather reports. Nordland is Norway’s most northerly region with only a few hours of daylight in winter, and it is also one of the country’s most import important fishing regions. If fishermen haven’t updated their radios, they could be at risk of being unprepared for bad weather.
A boost to radio sales
Unsurprisingly, sales of DAB radios have exploded in Norway since the switchover was confirmed by a majority vote in the Norwegian parliament, and DAB radios are expected to be one of the most popular Christmas gifts in 2016. The switchover has made radio a hot topic in Norway, for better or for worse.
However, given the common feeling that DAB radio is being forced upon people, some Norwegians may choose to start listening online instead, or even stop listening to the radio altogether.
Is Norway a model for other countries to follow?
Several countries have considered switching their radio networks completely to DAB/DAB+ including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. While there are no definite dates for doing so yet, it is expected that other countries will follow Norway’s suit in the next five years. As in Norway, any switchover in these countries will be controversial.
In 2016 a few AM stations in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany were switched off to transfer their funding to digital radio, and German station Klassik Radio voluntarily switched off its FM transmission to focus exclusively on DAB. While these actions indicate a strong trend towards digital radio, we will have to wait and see if any of these countries take the plunge and follow Norway’s example.
In its Digital Radio 2016 Report, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) named Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom ‘Leaders’ in digital radio in 2016, along with Norway of course. Switzerland is planning to replace AM transmissions with DAB+ in 2020, and replace FM with DAB+ between 2020 and 2024.