In July of last year, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams published a policy direction asking ICASA to fast track the licensing of digital radio broadcasting services in South Africa. Radio insiders were encouraged to see DAB+ mentioned specifically as an integral component of her digital radio standards plan.
A year on, the question of whether DAB+ is a viable opportunity in a country like ours — where radio is a huge medium for people to consume information, news, and entertainment every day — still lingers. One thing remains clear; although internet connectivity is improving around the country, there simply isn’t enough access or bandwidth for everyone to move from FM onto streaming. We need something else and DAB+ is a viable candidate that shows great promise. But what kind of impact could DAB+ have on the South African radio broadcasting landscape as a whole?
DAB+: A digital radio technology standard
Back in the late 1980’s, a digital radio technology standard was defined as part of a European research project. It laid the foundations for the creation of what we now know as DAB+ (digital audio broadcasting plus), a global radio standard that sets out to be a viable digital alternative to traditional AM/FM broadcasting. DAB+ is topical in South Africa because it was recently advertised in the Government Gazette — an encouraging sign that suggests forward motion and a goal to make it widely available to everyone in the long run.
In the same way that the country has been slow on the uptake of digital terrestrial TV, there is an argument that DAB+ is nearly two decades late in South Africa. This is more evident when you consider that over 470 million people around the world can already receive DAB broadcasts.
Even though DAB is widely available elsewhere, widespread integration has been a challenge. Finland is one of the rare countries where DAB+ has been totally integrated and is the only choice for people to listen to alongside online streaming. Ireland is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The country switched off all DAB services in March of this year, citing cost effectiveness and low market penetration as some of the reasons for abandonment.
Access to receivers and the cost barrier
The examples of challenges elsewhere might indicate possible integration challenges in South Africa too. A key problem faced in many markets is that existing FM units are not able to pick up DAB+. They can’t even receive transmissions from DAB, its predecessor. Even radios that can receive DAB won’t be able to receive DAB+. Only DAB+ sets are backwards compatible, so all citizens will need these to gain access transmissions to begin with.
Because access to physical receivers is so limited, there would need to be conversations with companies who are able to manufacture and distribute these at low cost. With a base cost of roughly R300 for a bottom end DAB+ receiver there is a lot of ground to be covered before it becomes as popular as FM. More advanced receivers that show pictures and streaming text are vastly more expensive. Although some new vehicles and cellphones have DAB+ capability built in, there is a long way to go to get mass coverage.
How DAB+ could change the face of radio in South Africa
If there was widespread access to receivers, and the cost barrier was removed, DAB+ could be a real game changer in South Africa. On a traditional transmitter, where you have one FM frequency, you have access to a single radio station. On a DAB mux (or multiplex), one “frequency” has around twenty different options to listen to, depending on the quality the broadcaster decides to stream. This gives broadcasters the opportunity to access multiple channels, to reach more audiences, and there is a major knock-on effect from there.
DAB+ would potentially create an additional layer of audio opportunity for radio stations in new markets that they wouldn’t have been able to reach through traditional AM or FM stations. Take Gqeberha based Algoa FM, for example. They could apply for a DAB frequency because they want to provide a service to audiences in Cape Town and Durban alongside their existing FM listener base. It would turn them into a national radio station overnight, without the worry of having to migrate shows to a streaming environment that won’t be able to handle the bandwidth load presented by their audience. A group of established streaming stations could also apply for a DAB+ mux together and offer their existing on-line music and content services to a bigger audience.
An opportunity to serve the underserved
DAB+ could also allow stations like these to reach places that were truly unreachable before for the first time. It creates an opportunity for underserved (rural) communities to have access to broadcasts where traditional FM frequencies struggle to, can’t or haven’t been legally licensed to reach previously underserved communities. This creates a variety of engagement opportunities based on geography, religion, sport and even education. Consider an educational radio station with several DAB+ frequencies, broadcasting simultaneously across the entire country. It could target high school students during exam time, quite literally becoming the “William Smith” of radio and reaching millions of scholars in the process.
Opening a door to new brand synergies
The amplified broadcasting opportunities would also naturally open new opportunities for innovative brand synergies as well. Radio groups like the National Community Radio Forum or some of the existing commercial radio players could create DAB muxes where they have blended programming from several of their stations in territories where there aren’t FM receivers.
This is an advertiser’s dream, granting brands access to new markets through a vehicle that they know well and trust already. Consider campaigns that target people who speak a certain language but have never been able to listen to a station on traditional radio due to geographical constraints and the language barrier. With multiple streaming avenues and targeted campaigns, stations and brands could finally begin to reach similar audiences in their native tongue for the very first time.
The DAB+ content opportunity
We can’t talk about the potential of DAB+ without mentioning the content creation opportunity. Whereas the content presented on traditional radio has an audience ceiling (and is limited to the amount of FM frequencies available), DAB+ is essentially an unlimited opportunity. As more channels become available, the content opportunity grows, and more people (jobs) will be needed to populate that content. As has been seen in the upswing of podcasting, this allows brands to invest in people who are creating interesting, topical, and engaging content. DAB+ essentially becomes the new home of exciting, high quality content that is widely available for listeners to consume, purely based on their own personal interests and preferences.
An optimistic outlook for DAB+
Despite that it has taken a long time — as well as technical challenges and a cost barrier that will need to be dealt with — DAB+ shows real promise and opportunity in South Africa.
It has the potential to create an additional layer for broadcasters to work with, it exposes audiences previously kept in the dark to existing and niche programming, and it gives brands the opportunity to amplify their efforts while speaking directly to their target market in the process. Content creators will also have additional platforms and scope to create and express themselves on.
A blended approach seems the most logical approach as we look for ways to utilise (and monetise) the DAB+ spectrum. At AME we have always loved audio and the connection it makes with people. Our two radio stations (OFM and Algoa FM) are well positioned to create new listening opportunities for audiences outside their traditional FM reach. Our Team at the Central Media Group hold an ENCS license as our first step to leveraging the DAB+. Additional platforms and technology are good for the entire broadcast business from platform owners, technical suppliers, content creators and ultimately the audience. It is however in our hands as the industry to drive the process.