Out with the old, in with the new: Digital radio takes over for FM in Norway

Photo: Bjørn Eirik Loftås / DinSide
In Norway, new cars now are delivered with DAB radios, as in this Skoda. Many older cars still have FM radios.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In the course of this year, Norway will become the first country to scrap FM radio and replace it with digital radio. The change from FM to digital broadcasting is taking place progressively in six regions of the country. It started January 11 in Nordland County and is scheduled to end on December 13 in Troms and Finnmark Counties when the last FM transmitters will be switched off.

Norkring, the subsidiary of the Telenor telecommunications group that builds, owns, and operates terrestrial TV (as opposed to satellite TV) and radio broadcasting services in Norway, describes the new digital radio network as having 765 transmission points that together provide radio coverage to 99.5% of the population. It was built from April 2012 to September 2014, at a total cost of NOK 1 billion ($117 million).

The principal reason for moving from analog FM broadcasting to digital broadcasting was to offer more radio channels without taking up more space on the already overcrowded radio-frequency band. The existing Norwegian national FM radio band can accommodate five national channels, while the digital network that replaces it can accommodate 25 national channels.

Today there are four digital wireless radio systems: two European systems, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) and its upgrade DAB+ for national services and Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) and its upgrade DRM+ for long-distance services (“mondiale” is French for “worldwide”); the Japanese Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting-Terrestrial (ISDB-T) system; and HD Radio (trademark) used in the U.S. As with the world’s different television broadcasting systems, these digital radio systems are not compatible. A radio for one system won’t work in another system.

Illustration by Radio.no
Region-by-region FM switch-off illustration includes fylke (county) names, percentage of population, radio sectors, and dates.

Many media reports of the FM-to-DAB switchover raise the question as to why it is taking place in Norway. The answer might be that Norway has the requisite confidence, built on experience in the early implementation of a new communications technology. In 1981, the four Nordic countries launched Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT), the world’s first fully automatic mobile (“cellular” in the USA) phone system to replace their overloaded manual mobile phone networks. The NMT standards were open to all manufacturers, a strategy that triggered the success of mobile phone makers Ericsson of Sweden and Nokia of Finland. NMT was an analog system, later designated 1G (for first-generation), to distinguish it from its digital successor (designated 2G), the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), in which Norway played a part. GSM now is the de facto global standard for mobile telephone systems around the world.

Despite the capability demonstrated by its involvement in GSM and the extent of the ongoing analog-to-digital broadcasting changeover, Norway’s commitment to DAB has its critics, within the country and elsewhere. In February 2016 in neighboring Sweden, after 20 years of DAB trials, debates, and assessments, the Riksdag (Parliament) rejected the FM-to-DAB proposals, and soon thereafter the government issued an explanatory white paper (Further reading). It lists unresolved administrative, social, and commercial questions. There also are 22 technical reasons for not closing down FM. A sample of the most persuasive three:

• The first: FM is still the world standard for terrestrial broadcast radio in more than 200 countries.

• The 17th: The DAB system, promoted by the EBU and WorldDAB, is not sanctioned by any European Union institution and cannot be regarded as a “European standard” for terrestrial broadcasting.

• The 22nd and last: A premature switch-off of FM will also leave foreign motorists in Norway without radio and possible traffic and emergency alerts. In Sweden millions of cars with only FM receivers still will be in use in ten years from now.
Apparently the jury is still out on the future status of DAB on the global market.

Further reading:
• “European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Digital Radio Toolkit, Key Factors in the Deployment of Digital Radio,” December 2014, 30 page PDF, free download at: www.ebu.ch/files/live/sites/ebu/files/Publications/EBU-MIS_Digital-Radio-Toolkit.pdf

• WorldDAB, the industrial organization for digital radio, including the implementation of broadcast digital radio based on DAB/ DAB+, website at www.worlddab.org

• “The Facts Behind the DAB Radio Failure in Sweden,” Public Sericerådet (Public Service Council), March 23, 2016, seven-page white paper (in English) downloadable at public-service.net/docu/DABFactsSweden.pdf

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.