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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
Clear signals for digital radio
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

The success of digital radio has been predicted at regular intervals over the past three years by both makers of radios and backers of the technology.

Concept design for digital radio, BBC
But 2003 could be the year that the technology really takes off.

So says Annika Nyberg, head of the international forum set up to drive development of the technology and tell broadcasters and listeners what it can do for them.

"The networks are there, the basic legislation is there, the frequencies and multiplexes are there and the services are there," she said.

"We are getting a wide range of receivers and prices are coming down to the point where cost is not a problem," she told BBC News Online.

Digital radio is certainly due some significant success.

Good signs

The BBC turned on the UK's first digital services eight years ago and four years ago Britain's first new digital radio stations took to the airwaves. In addition, 2002 saw the arrival of the first sub-100 pound digital radios.

This is a far cry from only two years ago when prices were high and interest and awareness among the general public was low.

At that time there were only 24 digital radio stations in the UK. Now there are more than 100 and 80% of the country can receive digital radio stations.

Christmas tree decorations, BBC
Christmas is a popular time for buying radios
The omens are good that 2003 will be a watershed for digital radio.

Audience figures released in mid-May show that the numbers of people tuning in are growing and that many niche stations are starting to win significant numbers of listeners.

Ms Nyberg is also expecting sales of digital radios to be big at Christmas, the time of year when 80% of radio purchases are made.

"There is huge demand building up towards Christmas," says Ms Nyberg. "We really need those production lines to be working."

Demand for digital radio sets has risen steadily over the last 12 months. So much so that makers of sub-100 digital radios, such as Imagination Technologies and Roberts Radio, have been unable to keep up with demand.

This has not been helped by the fact that some big manufacturers have yet to start making or selling digital radio sets.

Ms Nyberg says that Dutch electronics giant Philips is not selling a radio set of its own, even though it owns the pool of patents that define the core digital radio technology.

She feels Philips, Sony and other electronics firms are missing a huge opportunity because people who convert to digital radio rapidly become firm fans.

Popularity contest

What has been surprising, says Ms Nyberg, is the speed with which people who own one digital radio buy another.

"They buy the first digital radio because of the new services," she says, "but they buy the second because the sound quality is so good."

Despite the growing success of digital radio, what has yet to be felt is the full impact of the technology on the existing broadcasters.

Family gathers around a radio, BBC
Radios have changed with the times
The efficiencies of digital radio means it becomes possible to divide audiences very finely and target shows and services more accurately, says Ms Nyberg.

Commercial broadcasters are only just beginning to work out how they can use digital radio to boost income.

Eventually conditional access models may develop which give listeners the ability to download songs or interact for a small fee.

"You already pay for radio indirectly through licence fees or advertising but you do not perceive it as paying," says Ms Nyberg.

Even mobile phone firms are considering using digital radio as a means to get music, movies and other services to so-called third-generation handsets.

"Digital radio can deliver the same sort of content they thought they could deliver through the 3G network but it does it much, much cheaper," says Ms Nyberg.

The message about digital radio seems to be coming through loud and clear.

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