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December 23, 2019 12:48 pm  #1

Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

There was an old Brylcreem commercial that had the tagline “A little dab’ll do ya.” But in the world of radio, a little DAB didn’t do anything for us. CHUM was one of the big proponents of Digital Audio Broadcasting, but they lost millions in trying to develop the technology as the next evolution of radio.
But were they wrong? I ask after reading a series of articles that show DAB is now the norm in Europe, where more and more countries are eliminating their analogue radio signals. Norway started the trend by shutting off all its FM stations in January of 2017.
The U.K., which has also gone digital in a big way, has just announced a consultation on whether all of its remaining analogue signals should be shut down by 2022.
Just how widespread has it become? Check out this list from the Advanced Television website:
Key findings from the WorldDAB report include:
-Over 40 million receivers have been sold in the UK, with 65 per cent of households having at least one DAB receiver
-Over 14 million receivers have been sold in Germany, with 23 per cent of German households owning at least one DAB receiver
-In Switzerland, 65 per cent of all radio listening is via digital platforms, and 35 per cent of all listening is on DAB+. Switzerland has also confirmed digital switchover will take place no later than the end of 2024
-Italy, France, Netherlands and Belgium all show positive signs of growth in the last year
-In Norway, following its digital switchover in 2017, radio listening is now back to similar levels as achieved in 2016
-In Australia, 73 per cent of new cars are now sold with DAB+, up from 60 per cent in 2018. The commercial radio industry has also launched the largest consumer-focused DAB+ campaign since regular services launched in Australia 10 years ago
(I never actually got to hear a DAB station – is it any different from HD Radio?)
Radio in England used to be restricted to just a lucky few who got commercial licences, but was dominated by the BBC. Now that DAB is in place there, they have access to more terrestrial radio than we can even imagine, with unique formats and stations popping up all over the place. And it puts Canadian choices to shame.
I worry about the propagation of signals and how far out they can be received. But I can’t help but wonder: did we give up too soon or were we just ahead of our time? And can this technology ever make a comeback here, especially with the rest of the world apparently rushing towards it?

The History Of DAB In Canada


December 23, 2019 1:43 pm  #2

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

Apples and oranges - RA.  The UK and other EU countries use VHF frequency bands, around the equivalent of VHF Ch. 7 (around  174-220 mhz).  Propagation is good at those frequencies, penetrating high-rise buildings, condos, etc.  The propagation of VHF, is so good, you don't need too many transmission sites in a smallish country.  Canada is geographically one of the largest land masses in the world.  Canada chose a former military frequency band....around 1.452 Ghz in a microwave band.  I had the receivers, and they wouldn't work well with clear sight of the CN Tower.   I recall being at one senior CHUM (radio) executive's home (in the beaches in clear sight of the CN tower).  He had never tried DAB on a portable receiver.  I'll recall his comment: "If our future is this, then we are really (F...expletive)!"  I tried my DAB radio in low rise buildings, including those clad with metallic siding.  No signal!!!  The receiver was primitive with channel numbers that were incomprehensible.  There were no "listings" of which stations were on which of the channels.
But wait there's more.  The propaganda that is published in Europe about DAB is just that.  I spend a lot of time in Europe and you'd be hard-pressed in Italy to find a single taxi equipped with DAB, let alone a passenger vehicle.   No one I've ever met (outside of the UK) has a DAB portable or table radio.  None of the store chains, or even small audio shops that I have visited, sell DAB.  There are electronics store chains in Italy and throughout the EU that dwarf Best Buy, etc.  No DAB consumer radios anywhere!!!.  Try and find a DAB capable radio in a store in Rome, Bologna, Paris, etc.  No such luck.

So the UK and perhaps one or two of the nordic countries are the exception. Some car companies, Honda and GM were prepared to go full tilt on DAB but they were under-mined by Canadian broadcasters who never placed transmitters in high-traffic corridors.   At least one (Canadian) company offered to build out the transmitting network at low or no cost, in S. Ontario, if it could retain data rights, but CHUM and others declined the offer.  I know because I was "in the room".

GM, Honda and other car-makers were really blind-sided and dropped DAB in favour of satellite radio, which was inexpensive to integrate into their radios, since they were manufacturing for a market of 300 million + consumers south of the border.    The fact that they also earned "royalties" from the satellite radio companies, for sign-ups, also assisted the satradio roll-out.  No such plan by Canadian terrestrial broadcasters to incentivize the car-makers to include DAB as "standard" products.  Moreover, the satradio "chipset" by 2007 had dropped to under $2 per vehicle.  Yeh, that's right.  I was in the room with the engineers and I have reason to believe the chipset declined even lower, after 2007.  That's why satradio is in so many autos as "standard" equipment.  A low cost chipset and an antenna that was integrated with other equipment.

The EU DAB radios, (to the extent they are sold in UK, and nordic countries) are made primarily by manufacturers who had no presence in the consumer electronics market in Canada.  You simply cannot manufacture a one-of-a-kind (i.e. 1.452 GHZ) product, off shore, for a consumer market of less than 30 million people.  The Canadian broadcasters never, and I repeat never had a credible deployment plan for getting any radios into the market place.    Bottom line, UK broadcasters worked with manufacturers, and their  200 mhz DAB system, with great propagation could be deployed easily across the relatively small island.

We a) were never ahead of our time and b) did not give up too soon.  There was never any credible "plan" for DAB here, despite the DAB "promos".

BTW, one of the only DAB radios that I ever saw  in a Canadian radio execs office, was a car radio that had been built into a wooden console in his office.  It had been purchased at Kromer Radio, one of only two outlets in Canada that sold DAB radios....all of them car radios. Radioshack (now the was the only other vendor - in that case, the horrible hand-held unit.  BTW the handheld unit would not work with rechargeable AA batteries.   An alkaline AA battery lasted under 4 hours in the unit - if that.   You needed an external power supply which of course made it less than "portable'.  Bah!!!!

Last edited by tvguy (December 23, 2019 1:49 pm)


December 23, 2019 2:03 pm  #3

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

That's fascinating. Sounds like it wasn't ahead of its time - but perhaps behind it! 

So if what you say is true - and I have no reason to doubt it - I wonder why CHUM sank all that money into such a poor system in the first place. They weren't a company that made a lot of mistakes and they weren't known for spending money foolishly. But they clearly took a bath on this thing. Still, it's weird to think that you may one day go over to England for a visit and not be able to hear anything on a radio you took with you. (That's if you could adjust it to 9 khz spacing.)

So what is the future technology for terrestrial broadcasting in this part of the world? Satellite? Internet? HD? Or will we just leave things as they are and carry on? (I really don't have a problem with that last option - we know it works and almost everyone already has a radio that can get all the signals out there.)

I say - time to bring back quadraphonic!

     Thread Starter

December 23, 2019 4:10 pm  #4

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

Tim, what was "all that money" that CHUM sank into DAB?  To my knowledge, there was only a single employee ever involved to a significant extent in DAB - Duff Roman.  But most of his salary was directed towards CCD/Factor and some regulatory lobbying work and some other work in the "radio division".   The annual "fee" for CN Tower's Master Antenna corporation was somewhere between $50k and $70 k per year (for use of a carrier)   My recollection because I have the last billing from Master Antenna in my files, before a client cancelled the lease, was under $70K per annum.   CHUM spent no money on receiver development.  All of that cost was shouldered in Canada by General Motors. GM spent in the 7-figure range for their own R&D.   I don't recall if CHUM ever built out DAB at their Mt. Seymour antenna site.  They may have built in Ottawa.   My sense is that they did not.   
None of the other (salaried) CHUM execs was involved in DAB to my knowledge.  Senior CHUM execs did not have DAB radios.  Perhaps Jimmy Waters had one in his car.  The DAB "ads" were non-paid "promos" of unsold inventory.  Nothing more.  I can tell you from personal experience that that senior CHUM radio management "brain trust" never "bought" into DAB, at least in the period 1993-2001.  I don't think it was ever discussed, in terms of an actual roll-out plan during those years.  DAB was basically running unattended on the CN tower.  I doubt that any other hard cash was spent.   The "real" cost would have been to build out repeaters in Toronto and the Toronto-Barrie Hwy corridor and the 401 corridor from Windsor to the Ontario border.  That engineering work was never done (to my knowledge) and never expensed (to my knowledge).  CHUM probably spent about $100K (or less) for their ill-fated DAB Pay Audio application that many of us called "CHUMEROO", which was heard in 2005. Most of the money was spent on Peter Miller's salary who was in-house regulatory at CHUM TV and hearing prep costs.  That service was licensed and never saw the light of day.  They spent a few bucks on CHUMEROO Pay Audio engineering briefs, some hotel room costs in Ottawa (a hearing they attended anyway to oppose satellite radio) so the hearing money was going to be spent one way or another.  They didn't even have a working CHUMEROO prototype radio at the CRTC hearing.  It was, to be charitable, "a work in progress".  It was designed from the get-go to provide the CRTC with a Canadian-made licensing scenario, to thwart the licensing of satradio.

I don't think they ever committed any money to CHUMEROO radio development.  A guy from the UK was their "expert" at the hearing and he had trouble answering any questions regarding the possibility of a consumer product.  What was clear at that hearing was that they had not approached a single auto-maker about integration of the CHUMEROO radio into Canadian cars.

Finally and we can debate this for a long time, the Cdn DAB was never spectrum efficient.  Yes, you could put a few audio subcarriers into a channel, but the amount of spectrum L-Band DAB would have required in Toronto was enormous given the frequency coordination issues in other neighbouring communities.   Though most Big Yellow Board readers don't like satellite radio audio, the fact is that hundreds of audio channels fit within 4.5 MHz of spectrum.   (XM uses 4.5 for each of their E and W satellites and 4.5 MHz for the terrestrial repeaters (where deployed).  Under 13 MHz of spectrum is utilized for each of Sirius and XM, for their multiple satellites and terrestrial repeaters, and that 4.5 MHz for repeaters for each company is re-used city-to-city.  I also do not think that Rogers or Bell mobility - which is run separately from broadcasting ever contemplated adding DAB to their tower sites.  Each division (run entirely separate from their broadcast divisions) is highly motivated to load up their towers, with paying mobile customers, who share infrastructure and antennas,  and it is a difficult and costly proposition to negotiate with them to add (large) broadcast antennas or other infrastructure at their sites. I have first hand knowledge of that.  So it would not have been "easy"  or without great expense for any broadcaster to roll out DAB premised on an inexpensive or easy roll out using Bell or Rogers or Telus' towers.


December 23, 2019 4:27 pm  #5

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

@tvguy, i was at that hearing for other reasons.  the sense i got was that CHUM proposed their service in the hopes of blocking out Sirius and XM from the Canadian market.  When all three services were approved, CHUM had a pretty bad day.


December 23, 2019 4:30 pm  #6

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

Thanks guys. I'm finding all of this stuff fascinating and something I never knew about from behind the scenes.

I only met Duff Roman once a number of years ago. I remember making a reference to DAB and asking him what happened. His answer was kind of a vague, almost mumbling, "Yeah, that thing..." and then he tailed off. 

Obviously not one of his finest moments and it was clear he didn't want to talk about it, so I never brought it up again.  

     Thread Starter

December 23, 2019 6:37 pm  #7

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

Anyone who was associated with CHUM from the late 1990's to the time of its sale to Bell Media, may have been aware that there was a focus by senior management and shareholders to maximize the value of the various properties (including strategic acquisitions) prior to Alan Water's death in December 2005.   The company was sold shortly thereafter.  A large expenditure for CHUMEROO DAB or DAB (free to air) was never in the business plan, during those years.  So, the pay audio application was nothing more than an end run to try and block entry of satellite radio, which some within CHUM management felt would impact the value of its radio assets.  Bear in mind that the U.S. and to some extent Asian automakers have engineering cycles of 36-48 months (in the early-mid 2000's) so to integrate a "new" technology such as L-Band into the "head units" in cars, was a very major undertaking and time consuming.  So even if CHUM had ever taken up the licence, and built a single CHUMEROO transmitter, it would have been another 48 months before any compatible radio appeared on the scene in an auto.  But wait, they never negotiated with the car makers, so their so-called pay audio device (which did not actually exist) was dead in the water.

One anecdote if I may.   When one of the US satellite radio companies was gearing up for launch they had no experience in consumer electronics.  So they went out to find a group of engineers/project coordinators, etc, who had real world expertise in consumer electronics devices.  They induced a large number of Motorola engineers to join their new engineering hub in Boca Raton (or W. Palm) Florida.  They even located the facility at the same interstate exit so that everyone's commute would be the same.  This was a savvy move, because Motorola (before the iphone) had a commanding market share of digital devices.  I have actually been to that facility in Florida.  They could not afford to "fail" with a poorly engineered chipset or retrofit device.   There is a very long story as to why this was such an important decision...but I digress.   And history will show that it was not a bad decision.  Household names who at that time commanded major market share in consumer electronics, such as Sony...were some of the initial "partners".  On the other hand, Duff Roman and his "DAB" colleagues in Canada had no consumer product engineering infrastructure and no real ties to manufacturers.  They were dependent on a single automaker, who in the end, became impatient and existed.   That automaker of course aligned with the satellite radio service providers - XM initially I believe, and put millions of radios into the US and Canadian marketplace.


December 24, 2019 12:51 pm  #8

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

This ad aired on AM 640 back in 1995:


RadioWiz & RadioQuiz are NOT the same person. 
RadioWiz & THE Wiz are NOT the same person.


December 24, 2019 3:12 pm  #9

Re: Did North America Give Up On DAB Too Soon?

Very interesting reading in this thread. Thanks everyone for the posts.

I have a smattering of a few historical articles from Canadian newspapers on DAB. Nothing earth-shattering (and far from comprehensive), but fun to take a glance at what was written about in particular timeframes:

The Vancouver Province - November 26, 1990 (a Reuters wire piece):

The National Post - March 17, 1994:

The National Post - December 10, 1997:

The Vancouver Sun - October 22, 2002: