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Norway starts FM switch-off in move to digital radio

Norway will today become the first country in the world to begin switching off FM radio and moving fully to digital in a move that has stoked controversy nationally and widespread interest abroad.

The switch-off will start in the town of Bodo, northern Norway, at 11.11am and will be rolled out across the country throughout this year.

Countries such as the UK, Switzerland and Denmark will be monitoring the move as they are considering similar measures, although not before the end of this decade.

“All countries will be looking at Norway to learn the lessons. One of the things that will be analysed is the time given to people before the switch-off. Compared with the timelines for other countries, Norway is going very quickly,” said David Fernandez, senior media analyst at the European Broadcasting Union.

The move has proved unpopular in Norway, with two-thirds of people opposing it and only 17 per cent in favour, according to a recent opinion poll in the Dagbladet newspaper. Critics are particularly worried about the lack of digital (DAB) receivers in cars and about emergency communication.

An elderly listener in Norway with her FM radio set: the planned switch to digital is deeply unpopular © AP

“Norway is a particularly bad country to test in as we have such high taxes on cars and therefore have so many old cars. It is against people’s DNA to pay for radio. So they have resisted it,” said Sverre Holm, professor of signal processing at the University of Oslo.

Norway’s mountains, fiords and many remote settlements mean the cost of maintaining parallel FM and digital radio transmissions is high, while the quality promised by DAB is said to be better.

Three-quarters of Norwegians have access to a digital radio but almost 2m cars are thought to lack DAB equipment and most adaptors sell for NKr1,000-NKr2,000 ($115-$230).

Unlike the switch-off of analogue television, when the spectrum was reallocated for mobile and broadband use, there is no obvious alternative use for the FM radio spectrum. “There is no economic imperative to getting rid of FM,” said Mr Fernandez.

The switch-off will not be total: it only affects national stations, with local radio continuing to be broadcast on FM. But Norwegians will be able to access more national channels digitally, with about 25 available compared with five on FM radio.

Norway has already turned off its long-wave and medium-wave radio transmitters, making the transition from FM easier. But studies show radio listeners are more loyal than TV viewers to one channel, meaning a popular backlash remains possible. “DAB radio — brilliant or just lame?” was the headline in a newspaper in Bodo.

Via FT