Tuning into digital radio as an add-on to analogue

Digital sound broadcasting is the future of radio, with immense benefits to listeners, as digital radio promises universal service and access.
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The future of radio broadcasting lies in ones and zeroes, as AM and FM face saturation the world-over.

In South Africa, radio broadcasting remains one of the most preferred modes of information, entertainment and education, while with marginalised communities, it remains the only source of information − this is the case for all three tiers of radio broadcasting (public, commercial and community).

According to the PwC Africa Entertainment and Media Outlook Report 2019-23, at least 47% of South Africans tune in their radios for more than 20 hours each week.

Furthermore, the Broadcasting Research Council’s 2021 statistics show 77% of South Africans listen to radio through traditional receivers, 29% listen to radio via their mobile phones, 12% via TV sets and 1% through computers. The SABC radio services command 73.2% of the market share.

These numbers reflect the important role radio continues to play in society.

The traditional analogue FM radio broadcasting sector has, as a result, grown in leaps and bounds, and the emergence of other internet-based services, podcasting and app-based radio services is, to some extent, shifting the status quo.

Furthermore, most South African radio stations are available online for streaming; however, the high cost of data still creates an adoption barrier to most South African citizens, hence the traditional way of accessing radio is still predominant.

The future of radio sees digital radio becoming an add-on service and not a substitute to existing analogue FM radio.

Unlike with television broadcasting digital migration, where the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) prescribed deadlines for countries to have fully migrated to free-up some radio frequency spectrum, there is no such obligations for sound broadcasting services.

To this end, there are no national incentives in place to motivate the uptake of digital radio, as is the case with digital terrestrial television (DTT). The digital sound broadcasting process is different to that of DTT. The uptake of digital radio services by incumbent radio broadcasters will be driven by commercial imperatives.

Digital radio is received free as it utilises the radio frequency spectrum and is not dependent on broadband/data, like internet-based radio services and streaming.

The benefits of digital radio can therefore not be downplayed. Once introduced, digital radio will afford incumbent radio stations an opportunity to simulcast their existing services by broadcasting both digitally and on analogue FM, as a way of ensuring no listener is left without any service, while allowing licensees to apply for new, niche services as an add-on to their existing services.

This also means new players can leap-frog technologies and start to broadcast their services on the digital platform.

With the myriad of licensed radio services (39 public service and commercial radio stations and over 250 community radio stations), the country has, over the years experienced radio frequency spectrum scarcity in the traditional analogue FM bands, particularly in the metropolitan areas.

This resulted in, among others, ICASA not being able to license commercial radio stations in key metropolitan areas such as Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, but rather focus on issuing commercial sound broadcasting licences in the so-called secondary markets, while imposing a nation-wide moratorium on the licensing of community radio stations, which was lifted in 2019.

Like other jurisdictions, ICASA has resorted to innovative ways of ensuring the efficient utilisation of the radio frequency spectrum, in order to introduce more spectral-efficient technologies. In 2016, ICASA initiated an inquiry to introduce digital sound broadcasting in the country, which paved the way for the formulation of a regulatory framework for the licensing of such services.

Parallel to this, the sound broadcasting licensees, together with the signal distributor, were issued trial licences to test various digital sound broadcasting technologies, such as the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB+) − piloted by commercial and public broadcasting radio stations, and Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM+ and DRM30) – piloted by community radio stations.

Furthermore, in keeping with global (ITU), regional (SADC) and national imperatives to, among others, harmonise initiatives with other countries towards the introduction of digital sound broadcasting, on 10 July 2020, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies published a policy directive on the introduction of digital sound broadcasting.

The policy directive gave ICASA guidelines on frequency bands to be considered for licensing digital sound broadcasting services and recommended the introduction of DAB+ and DRM+ to complement analogue FM services and DRM30 to complement AM services, as digital technologies for consideration.

While there is no spectrum scarcity in the AM bands, the need to augment AM services with digital broadcasting is to supplement the poor quality of AM services.

The introduction of DRM30 also means AM frequencies can be licensed with ease, side by side with FM, due to the improved sound quality guaranteed by this technology.

The policy directive further emphasised the need for the achievement of developmental goals when introducing digital sound broadcasting services; these included universal service and access, innovation and the introduction of competition while safeguarding the needs of existing broadcasters and those of consumers.

ICASA finally published the Digital Sound Broadcasting Regulations in March 2021. The final regulations took the provisions of the ministerial policy directive into account.

The benefits to listeners are immense, as digital radio promises universal service and access – meaning wide coverage and good quality reception, and a wide variety of services catering for different interests across various genres.

Like FM, digital radio is received free as it utilises the radio frequency spectrum and is not dependent on broadband/data, like internet-based radio services and streaming.

According to WorldDAB, in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is in the forefront of introducing digital radio. Different countries have different approaches to how they roll out digital radio. Countries, such as Norway, have plans to do a total switch-over from FM to digital broadcasting − and it was one of the first countries to switch off its FM services in 2017, though it had to re-introduce FM with the final switch-off period being 2022.

South Africa has not made a call on whether FM will be switched off completely. Given the economic inequalities and the digital divide in South Africa, it will not make socio-economic sense to force all South Africans citizens to procure digital receivers, which are currently still pricey, while traditional radio broadcasters will still be broadcasting on the FM frequencies.

The economies of scale are not such that ordinary South Africans can afford to buy these receivers.

Car manufacturers are, however, rising to the occasion, as they are beginning to introduce digital radio receivers in their latest car models, in order to embrace this global phenomenon. This is a positive development, as it helps to drive the uptake, since most South Africans consume radio in cars − whether public, private or community. 

Advocate Dimakatso Qocha

ICASA councillor.

Advocate Dimakatso Qocha is a councillor at ICASA and is currently completing her four-year term. She is an ICT policy and regulatory specialist who began her career in 2004 when she worked at Sentech.

Qocha later joined the National Association of Broadcasters as deputy executive director. During her tenure, she was involved in the formulation of broadcasting policy and regulatory submissions to the regulator and Parliament, hence contributing to the changed landscape of the ICT industry.

Furthermore, Qocha was instrumental and party to negotiations on needle time royalties between broadcasters and collecting societies.

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