Last Week in Tech Policy #41: FMExit—Norway’s Transition from FM Radio to Digital Audio Broadcasting

(by Zach Goldberg, Colorado Law 2L)

Norway has begun phasing out analog FM radio by shutting down broadcasts in certain parts of the country. The switch began at 11:11 am on January 11 Nordland, a county in northern Norway, and within a year, the Norwegian government plans to transition the entire country to Digital Audio Broadcasting (“DAB”). Under this new regulatory scheme, only 200 or so small local stations will be permitted to broadcast on FM frequencies.

This post explores the past, present, and future of the transition.

Government officials in Norway cite several advantages that they believe will result from phasing out FM radio. In addition to DAB’s superior sound qualityproponents of the switch believe that it will result in greater access to emergency messages and radio content nationwide. Transmitting FM radio signals is especially difficult and expensive in Norway, as compared with other countries, because many of its citizens live in small communities scattered throughout its mountainous, rocky topography. Additionally, digital networks can use the e-m spectrum more efficiently, and have the capacity to carry eight times more channels than analog networks at the same cost. While the FM spectrum can accommodate only 5 national stations in Norway, there are 22 national digital stations and 20 additional smaller stations.

How might the shutdown of analog FM radio impact Norwegians?

Some Norwegian radio consumers have already begun to voice skepticism regarding the claim that the switch promises improved sound quality, citing digital glitches that lower, or at least, fall short of improving their listening experience over the analog FM signal to which they are accustomed. Others don’t believe that the promise of greater programming variety is worth the cost of switching to DAB technology.

Controversy is also stirring in Norway as to what the financial impact of the switch will be. Norwegian officials do not anticipate that the shift will directly impact any jobs, and estimate that the switch will save radio stations the equivalent of over $23.5 million a year in broadcast costs that can be invested in radio content. However, opponents of the switch—including two-thirds of consumers surveyed—assert that it will burden Norwegian citizens, who will now have to incur the cost of either new digital radios or digital adapters for the FM radios in their cars.

Beyond the financial burden the switch may place upon Norwegian citizens, critics have voiced public safety concerns. Although 70% of homes in Norway already have DAB radios, cutting off FM radio broadcast to the 2 million cars throughout the country lacking DAB radios may deprive citizens of important emergency warnings.

What is the future of radio outside of Norway?

Other European countries are taking notice of Norway’s “FMExit.” The United Kingdom, Denmark and Switzerland have all been considering making the switch to DAB. In the U.K., 45% of radio listening is digital, and plans are in place to make the leap to DAB once that figure rises to 50%. South Tyrol in northern Italy plans to make the switch by the end of the year. However, broadcasters in Germany and France do not view the shift to DAB as advantageous, and have already declared their intention not to make it.

Will the U.S. eventually phase out FM radio in favor of DAB?

The short answer: probably not. Christoper Ornelas of the National Association of Broadcasters predicts that the U.S. will not phase out FM radio in favor of DAB as Norway has done, because Norwegian radio differs from U.S. radio in ways that make the shift cost effective only for the former. For example, the U.S. has over fifty-three times as many radio listeners as Norway, and U.S. radio stations are primarily commercial, as opposed to Norway’s which are largely state-owned. Also, commuters listen to car radios more commonly in the U.S. than in Norway, and the U.S has many more FM (and AM) stations than Norway does. U.S. citizens still receive a large amount of content and alerts by means of analog radio.

Additionally, the digital radio technology that is prominent in the U.S. may not yield the same cost reduction that Norwegian officials anticipate will result from the shift to DAB. DAB requires separate portions of spectrum for FM stations and digital radio channels. Digital radio in the U.S. is largely HD radio, which transmits both analog and digital signals through a single set of channels in the same portion of the spectrum.

Who will be the winners and losers as Norway makes the transition from FM radio to DAB?

The national shift away from an established telecommunications technology to a new one will likely be detrimental to some interested parties and beneficial to others. Sales of DAB radios and adapters have already increased sharply in Norland, the trend will likely continue as FM stations go silent in other counties. However, elderly Norwegians who have relied on FM radio  for many years may not want, or be able to afford, to switch to digital.  Also, younger Norwegians, who are accustomed to getting their audio programming from internet-based sources may not be in the market for DAB radios either.

  • Will the shift yield beneficial modernization or merely change the parties to whom the profits of Norwegian radio accrue?
  • Is Norway a trendsetter or is this a unique situation?
  • Will predictions by proponents of the shift or warnings by its critics come to fruition as ‘FMexit’ continues to unfold?