Norway is getting rid of FM radio. They just don’t need it anymore. They have better things to listen to. Really. I’m not kidding. Norway has been working on it for 20 years! Fly to Oslo! Hear the future now!
This amazing milestone in the history of radio will begin in 2017. Norway is preparing to become the first country on Earth to rely entirely on a new all-digital approach to broadcasting. No FM is necessary! Listeners will continue to hear dozens and dozens of crystal clear digital radio channels with beautiful fidelity. Broadcasters will spend less money on transmission costs. Probably most important: Radio in Norway will use less precious spectrum space than ever before.
How is it done?
Norway plotted a solid direction towards the future and never lost course. Their good fortune began with the allocation of a new frequency band exclusively for digital audio broadcasting: 174 to 240 MHz. CEPT, The European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations, set aside ‘high VHF Band III’ specifically for digital radio. This spectrum is roughly the same territory used for TV channels 7 through 13 in The Americas. TV broadcasts in Norway have been exclusively on UHF frequencies for a very long time so high VHF was ripe and ready for use.
The rationale was simple. Broadcasting in Norway began nearly ninety years ago on medium wave and long wave. When FM became popular, it enjoyed a new frequency band to insure its success: 87.5 to 108 MHz. Digital arrived in 1995 and found its own place on the dial: 174 to 240 MHz. It all made sense.
Discreet bands for each transmission method allowed development of new technologies without being backwards compatible. Europe was free from the challenge (and eventual failure) of implementing in-band on-carrier compatible digital (IBOC ‘HD Radio’) as seen in The United States. Every European band had a purpose and there was no requirement to mix broadcast standards and technologies in one pot. In Norwegian eyes, trying to piggyback digital signals on an archaic AM or FM carrier would be absurd. The purveyors of our stateside ‘HD Radio’ had another idea!
The Norwegian approach is also remarkably efficient with spectrum space and overall financial cost. Most areas in Norway are served by only two or three transmitters employing a technique known as SFN – Single frequency Networks. One digital carrier is capable of delivering 12 or more individual radio programs simultaneously. 36 or more radio stations only require about 4.5 MHz compared to 20 MHz necessary to convey the same amount of programs via the analog FM band. Amazing!
It Makes Sense
Consider the budget necessary to install, operate and maintain 36 separate FM stations and associated translators to cover all of Norway. Compare this to running three SFN multiplexes with a similar distribution scheme. Bean counters would be smiling enough to treat themselves to a free lunch!
This new digital world is an interesting one. Radio’s delivery becomes quite concise and efficient. Transmitted bandwidth within a SFN can be changed at will to suit the needs of each specific format. Is your station mostly talk? Use less bandwidth. Does your service feature classical music and show tunes? Widen its bandwidth for ultra-fidelity. (Norway’s SFNs use a bitrate of 192 kbs for music and 96 kbs for talk.) Network managers can tailor their multiplexes to suit today’s needs.
The history of Norwegian digital radio technology is fascinating. The original system, deployed in 1995, was called simply DAB – Digital Audio Broadcasting. To receive these new broadcasts, people in Norway needed to purchase completely new radios to suit. LW/AM/FM radios simply won’t work!
The incentive to update was enticing. With AM radio, you could hear maybe two different stations. FM radio provided a small handful of choices, at best. Pulling in each individual analog AM or FM station could be tricky and challenging. Digital transmission provides dozens of static-free choices without worry or elaboration. High-powered digital transmissions, on the high end of the VHF spectrum, became a perfect combination for success.
Engineers studied their initial impressions of the DAB system and found room for improvement. Mobile reception needed further refinement especially to meet the demands of rough terrain and distance. Analytical studies revealed what was being lost during travel mostly occurred during high-speed driving. One problem was particularly fascinating: Digital signals were losing lock when cars exceeded 120 km/h due to Doppler shift! Diagnostic work began and designers looked for answers.
A few years later, an all-new system was launched and marketed. DAB+ was a completely redesigned system that doubled the efficiency of bandwidth use (twice as many programs were now possible.) Designers decided to use a new digital codec called AAC+ and also employ the Reed-Solomon error correction scheme. Radio moved another step forward.
The conversion to DAB+ took some time to deploy. Unfortunately, DAB+ was not compatible with the original DAB transmission scheme, so listeners had to, once again, invest in new radios. It has been 20 years since Norway began to broadcast using DAB formats. Today, 99.5% of Norwegians can receive a DAB+ signal and over half of Norway’s radio listeners already rely on digital to tune in.
Norway Is Ready
The time has come to pull the plug and discontinue all analog FM broadcasting in Norway. Operating redundant analog broadcasts no longer makes financial sense. First to go all digital will be the dominant government-owned NRK station group heard across the nation. Analog shutdown will begin in 2017. Local independent broadcasters are encouraged to follow suit although there is no mandatory date for their analog demise quite yet.
Digital DAB+ has earned public acceptance after demonstrating long-term technical reliability and providing vast programming options. Adding to the embrace is the ability to send descriptive text for station IDs, song and program titles and other program information. The system is also capable of sending graphics and entertainment material. I think they thought of everything!
So, what’s in store for digital radio? The choices are many. The easiest way to tune in is to purchase an outboard converter such as the popular Tiny Audio C3. It uses a retrofit receiving antenna that glues onto your windshield. DAB+ broadcasts are relayed to your car radio via a low powered FM transmitter built into the Tiny Audio C3. Tune your older FM radio to your converter’s transmission frequency and hear the world of DAB+ now! Power to power the converter comes from a 12 volt cigarette lighter plug adapter. The Tiny Audio C3 looks very similar to converters marketed in North America for Sirius and XM satellite radio reception.
This little converter is quite a diverse and agile beastie. The display indicates signal strength, output FM frequency, actual received DAB frequency, SFN channel and program ID along with rolling text capable of all sorts of text messages. An interface is available to integrate the Tiny Audio C3 with your smartphone or other Bluetooth device. Onboard memory allows you to pause broadcasts or even replay them. If you have an older car, this converter will help you get with the program! Fancy stuff! Of course, many car manufacturers integrate full-featured DAB+ radios into their new vehicles making converters unnecessary.
Home DAB+ receivers come in all shapes and sizes. First, take a look at a major retailer’s offerings: Komplett is the Norwegian equivalent of Best Buy. Try https://www.komplett.no/ and search DAB+. You’ll see quite an amazing collection! One manufacturer seems to lead the pack – a British firm called Pure. I really want to try their tiny portable receiver – the Move 2500. Simple and basic with a big sound. See: http://www.pure.com/digitalradio/
Two very attractive and popular models caught my eye. They feature attractive wood grain cabinetry and sleek European styling. The best-selling Pure Evoke D6 and the Sony XDR-SD16DBP both combine a nostalgic tip of the hat to legacy designs combined with clean lines and style you would expect today. Norwegian living rooms and bedrooms would welcome these beauties.
The features are fun, too. Most of these radios all auto-tune by program name. First, you scan the band to create a list of available programs. Scroll through the list as you decide what you would like to listen to. Now you are locked on to a channel. Travel far and wide and the radio will follow your program from transmitter to transmitter along the way as you go. No retuning necessary! More sophisticated sets also allow tuning by individual multiplex or actual transmit frequency. It is a new world over there!
Listen To This!
So what can you hear? The dominant broadcaster in Norway is NRK – Norsk rikskringkasting AS – owned and operated by the government of Norway. Typically, one of the three DAB+ SFN multiplexes will be exclusively loaded with NRK programming. You’ll find many formats to choose from: news/talk, pop, dance, classical, jazz and several services aimed at specific local and regional audiences.
Many independent broadcasters offer alternatives to NRK. Radio Norge is a popular full service station mixing music, talk and information for general audiences. You might also find some international content. France is well-represented by Radio Nova, Radio Inter and NRJ. See a complete rundown of Norwegian radio channels at: http://radiomap.eu/no. Click on the station names to hear live streams of each radio service!
One Norwegian analog station shows no sign of retirement: NRK’s 100 kW longwave station at Ingøy Måsøy – a remote island in farthest reaches of Northern Norway – operates on 153 kHz. Its antenna tower reaches 1188 feet – the tallest structure in Scandinavia! When all else fails, this station will be heard! Longwave DXers have logged it all over the world! Long live longwave!
Norway is far ahead in the roll-out of their DAB system, but they are not alone. 21 countries have established DAB operations with another 18 countries experimenting and deciding their fate. Canada is in digital limbo. They tried digital audio on the L band (around 2 GHz) and the system never gained popularity.
America’s HD Radio scheme has been treading water since testing began in 2001. HD Radio is not a SFN system but an add-on to existing analog operations. Few financial gains can be found and stations must purchase licenses to use this technology. Adding to the mud is a lack of new innovative programming and useful receivers for purchase. Our wheels are spinning and we are not moving ahead.
All hope is not lost. Americans almost have a SFN in our SiriusXM satellite system serving Canada and The United States. Since most SiriusXM radios are found in cars, receiver and converter choices are limited. The system is financially quite a success. More subscribers than ever now listen to SiriusXM. Mobile satellite radio is not available in Europe. Still, I’d love to experience the advanced technology of Norwegian DAB+ up north.
Finally, DXers should know that DAB+ travels long distances during high VHF during tropo lifts. Norway’s DAB+ has been heard in various places in Europe when conditions allow. Visit ace DXer Ruud Brand’s channel on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/RBrDX (look at his videos) for documentation of some amazing catches!
It will probably be many years or decades before analog terrestrial broadcasts will be ended in North America. Currently, America looks like it is heading towards Wi-Fi as a digital multimedia distribution system. Time will tell!