The Government has also confirmed long-term access to FM for small local and community radio services, writes David Davies. In a far-ranging speech that alluded to former Conservative minister Lord Fowler and US president Woodrow Wilson, Culture minister Ed Vaizey revealed the Government's latest thinking on the future of UK radio at the Intellect Consumer Electronics Conference on 8 July.
The broadcast industry has been working to a tentative 2015 switchover date for several years now, but Vaizey implied that this could be reviewed if insufficient numbers of consumers make the transition in time.
"We agree that 2015 is an appropriate target date; a point at which all parts of the supply-chain can focus on. If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready we will support a 2015 switchover date," he said. "... It is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover. Therefore, the target date is secondary to the criteria. We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital, or to put it another way when analogue listening is in the minority. The decision will also be dependent on significant improvements to DAB coverage at a national and local level."
Vaizey also emphasised the importance of "great content" to driving digital radio adoption, and in the week of the 6 Music decision (see separate story on this edition of the newsletter), paid lavish tribute to the station: "The furore and subsequent saving of 6 Music shows that the BBC is already building a fantastic portfolio of digital radio content, which has already established a passionate following, myself included."
He also moved to calm fears over the long-term future of FM, confirming that it would "remain a platform for small local and community radio for as long as these services want it".
Paul Smith, general manager of digital radio manufacturer PURE (whose EVOKE-3 portable stereo digital and FM radio is pictured), was among those to welcome the speech: "Despite the strategic nature of digital broadcast and the inevitable need for technological advances, there have been many confusing messages around digital radio switchover and this announcement gives much-needed clarity to consumers and the radio industry as a whole. It allows us to push ahead our digital radio plans with certainty in the UK and internationally where Governments in other countries have made similar commitments. PURE will work closely with other radio industry stakeholders to help deliver the Government's action plan."
In a separate development pertaining to the emergence of digital Britain, two major ISPs - BT and TalkTalk - have called for a judicial review of the Digital Economy Act, which passed into law amidst considerable controversy shortly before May's General Election. The companies believe that the Act received "insufficient scrutiny" and that its measures to try to prevent online copyright infringement "could harm citizens as well as impact" their businesses.
Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Retail, said: "It's disappointing that we feel the need to take action but we feel we have no choice. We have to do this for our customers who otherwise run the risk of being treated unfairly. Our dispute is not with the current Government but with the way the previous administration pushed this through without due process. We need clarity about whether this legislation is compatible with important EU laws."
Charles Dunstone, chairman, TalkTalk Group, said: "The Digital Economy Act's measures will cost the UK hundreds of millions and many people believe they are unfair, unwarranted and won't work. So it's no surprise that in Nick Clegg's call for laws to repeal this Act is top of the public's 'wish list'. Innocent broadband customers will suffer and citizens will have their privacy invaded. We think the previous Government's rushed approach resulted in flawed legislation. That's why we need a judicial review by the High Court as quickly as possible before lots of money is spent on implementation."