Digital radio: Italians use it more and more without knowing it

Digital radio: Italians use it more and more without knowing it

Digital radio

Video Killed the Radio Star , The Buggles played, but after more than 40 years we know that the radio survived the attack thanks to digital technology and is in excellent health. Precisely 13 February is World Radio Day and therefore the anniversary of the first UN radio transmission in 1946 is celebrated. It is therefore the ideal time to take stock of the diffusion of the most cutting-edge technology: DAB (digital audio broadcasting). It is little known to the general public, although it is used daily by millions of Italians. Unbeknownst to them during the so-called drive time, the frequencies scroll through the car radios. In fact, from 2020 all cars purchased in Europe must be fitted with DAB systems (actually DAB+) and also FM.

However, FM is not yet destined for retirement. " I can assure you that there has never been talk of switch off or switch over of analogue radio, DAB is simply considered a complementary technology. Even if in fact there are European markets, such as Switzerland and Norway, where different choices have been made ", Massimiliano Montefusco, general manager of Rds assures 100% Grandi Successi.

The technology:

What is Dab Dab+ coverage in Italy The Italian radio panorama The future of Dab+

What is Dab

Dab is a technology that actually dates back to the 80s but Italy by choice, and perhaps even a little indolence, has focused directly on Dab+. In practice, compared to the first version, it boasts higher signal quality, employs a more efficient compression algorithm (eAac+) and is more resistant to possible disturbances. The advantages for radios are that they can almost triple the number of stations (12-24) in a single multiplex; in analogue instead each frequency corresponds to a station.

Without counting the possibility of activating multimedia services, combining texts or images with music playback. But if you really wanted to reduce this technology to two key elements, for consumers, it would be enough to refer to the audio quality similar to a CD and the convenience of not having to change frequencies to listen to your favorite station when moving around the country.

Dab+ coverage in Italy

According to the international consortium WorldDab, the combined coverage of regular and experimental broadcasts reaches 86% of the Italian population. This is also possible because many radios and car stereos support both FM and DAB+, complete with an identification logo on the packaging and sometimes on the devices.

As of 10 April 2022, 35,565 active broadcasting systems had been declared to the land registry, of which 18,095 of the digital television type, 570 of the digital radio type (Dab) and 16,900 of the analogue radio type in the FM band. There are three national multiplexes: Rai with 18 RaiWay transmission sites, Dab Italia (of which Rds is a part) with around 165 on-air transmission sites and EuroDab Italia with 40 sites. Overall, they cover almost the entire peninsula and the main Italian roads and motorways.

Dab case penetration - WorldDab (Jan 2023)

" In Italy, coverage has developed above all considering the outdoors and in in fact, 70% of listening takes place on average in the car.Today there are about 10.5 million owners of compatible receivers, both for homes and cars", underlines Montefusco. However, as WorldDab again recalls, in June 2022 there were just under 5 million Italian vehicles in circulation equipped with Dab+ out of a fleet in circulation of just under 40 million.

FM and Dab+ systems often do not coincide, however if the the first broadcasts a single radio channel, the second can manage up to 12: " The hybrid mode sees the car radios hook up first to the DAB, if then in the tunnel, for example, there is a coverage problem, the system switches to FM and in the event of interference arrives the IP [internet protocol, ed] of the mobile connection. The listener doesn't have to do anything, it's all automatic - explains Montefusco -. At the same time Dab and IP are able to offer cover art, song title, geolocation and services value-added such as a coupon for a purchase ".

Why go directly to mobile services, given that basically Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are gradually integrating everything? Montefusco explains that “ if all the radio went on IP instead of FM or DAB there would practically be an interruption of use. Maybe tomorrow with a widespread 5G something could change, but today the hybrid system is ideal".

DAB road coverage - WorldDab (Jan 2023)

Massimiliano Capitanio, Commissioner of the Authority guarantor of communications (Agcom) explains that the institution, the Ministry of Enterprise and Made in Italy (Mimit) and the sector recently "have addressed various issues relating to Dab. Among these is the risk that digital platforms may favor some stations than others". In fact, one day the car manufacturers could decide to leave the over-the-tops a total free rein in infotainment, hence the need to reflect on potential future obligations. " Radio listeners could get out of the habit of looking for stations and favor those in sight, or those who pay for the platform ", points out the commissioner.

The Italian radio panorama

Agcom during the last annual report 2022 confirmed that overall radio ratings in general are again in a positive phase (+2.3%), after the drop recorded in the most critical months of the health emergency. Certainly we are not yet at pre-pandemic levels but there is confidence. The prevalence of listening away from home is confirmed, especially on journeys to work or study, in the specific morning and afternoon slots of the so-called drive time.

Radio Revenues 2023 (Agcom)

And it also explains why the car radio is the most used instrument compared to smartphones, PCs, tablets and smart speakers. Indeed, if on the one hand the first grows by 7.7%, the other devices are decreasing. Especially the PC, with -13%. The economic resources deriving from the radio activity, on the other hand, increased from 551 million in 2020 to 613 million in 2021 with an increase of 11.4% (in any case lower than in 2019). The main source – about 460 million – is related to the sale of advertisements; the proceeds from the collection of the license fee for the public radio service amount to 104.8 million euro. “ At the Radio Editors Table we are discussing the certification of data relating to the DAB audience and it is not excluded that from 2024 it could be transformed into another resource ”, underlines Montefusco.

As for the structural arrangements , Rai is the leader with a 23.5% share of total revenues, followed by the Fininvest/Mfe Group (Mediaset) with 13.9% and Gedi with 11.7%. Followed by Rtl with 8.8% of total economic resources, Rds with a share of 7.5%, the Sole 24 Ore Group, whose revenues represent 3% of the sector's revenues, eRadio Italia, with a weight of 3 %. Finally, there are four other national players: the Kiss Kiss Group, the Production Center (Radio Radicale), the Radio Maria Association and numerous other local radio stations with even more marginal shares, which together represent over 30% of the sector's economic resources.

The future of Dab+

Last August, Agcom announced the provisional national plan for the assignment of radio frequencies in Dab+ digital technology. This document has made explicit the attribution of the 174-230 MHz frequency band, available from 1 July thanks to the completion of the new digital terrestrial frequency management phase.

Specifically, the Authority has established three national networks, 54 local networks with regional coverage and 36 with multi-provincial or provincial coverage. This is still a provisional plan as Mimit still has an international comparison for frequency planning along the Adriatic underway. A strategic area because it includes two industrially key areas for the radio sector: Triveneto and Emilia Romagna.

The national networks have deemed the scheme satisfactory, while the local sector deems it unsuitable because it is too favorable to the former both due to the excessive transmission capacity made available and the number of local networks planned. "Even if we estimate a transport capacity of 20 programs per network, it is insufficient to guarantee the digital diffusion of all the contents currently present on the FM analogue platform, especially in the Adriatic area", reads the document. All we have to do is wait for the ministry's word.

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