Norway Will Soon Shut Down Its Analog FM Stations. Could the United States Do The Same?

Credit: stock.xchng

Credit: stock.xchng

Imagine turning on your radio to listen to your favorite station to find nothing but static. You hit the ‘seek’ button and it dances from 88.1 to 107.9 multiple times without stopping. And yep, your antenna is connected and it is operating just fine. It’s surely a DXing nightmare–something that will soon be a reality for DXers living in Norway.

In less than two years, the country will cease all analog FM broadcasting. According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter, other European countries, including the United Kingdom, are also considering to end analog radio broadcasting by 2022.

The move will likely render Norway’s entire FM DXing community obsolete.  The country will shut down its analog signals one by one throughout 2017, according to the article.  For Norwegians, gone will be the days of DXing distant cities’ FM signals like the rest of the world. Gone will be the ability of DXers abroad receiving Norway via tropo or Sporadic E.

According to the Norwegian government’s official notice of the switch-off, two criterion had to have been met by 2015 for the transition to get the green light: affordable conversion equipment must have been available for car radio reception, and at least half of all listeners must listen to a digital radio station daily.

Apparently, both requirements have been met. Had the country fallen short, the decree would have called for a potential postponement of the transition to 2019.

In place of the conventional analog signals in Norway will be already-available Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) stations, which reside in the 174-240 MHz (or Band III) spectrum, the article said. In the U.S., these frequencies are used for TV channels 7-13.

Although this may not be the best time to be a Norwegian DXer, ironically, the move would likely present a huge opportunity for those affected by the switch-off. Barring any radio spectrum reassignment post-transition, Norway’s current FM band would be completely open to any and all Sporadic E and tropo reception from bordering countries. But even with that perk, the average DXer would likely never be able to DX in-country signals ever again sans a spectacular tropospheric ducting event due to the high frequencies involved with DAB.

I wondered if the United States would follow suit and end analog FM broadcasting much like what the country did in 2009 with the DTV television transition. Although I have no idea what may be on the horizon, I don’t think such a similar transition for FM radio in the U.S. is imminent, for a number of reasons:

  • Lack of interest in digital FM. To have a successful movement to facilitate a transition to all-digital FM, there would have to be an inherent consumer interest in digital FM to the point where people are willing to invest in the new technology. What made the digital TV transition in the U.S. possible was, in my opinion, consumer interest in a clearer (HD) picture and a widescreen television format not previously available with conventional TVs. There’s simply no equivalent ‘wow’ factor with digital radio in this country.
  • Distractions. Americans have many other sources for music than FM. iPods, Spotify, Youtube, Pandora, satellite radio, and a slew of other music services exist–all of which already pulls away potential audiences from FM radio. These people are not going to be interested in a digital FM transition when they can get digital-quality music elsewhere without commercials and DJ chatter.
  • Radio industry. The U.S. radio industry has been on a homogenizing kick for over the past 15 or so years, introducing voicetracking to stations nationwide and stripping their signals of creative talent, imaging and music variety. But with the said, I don’t think that the media giants (iHeartMedia, Cumulus, Radio One, et al.) would not give up their business model for a national set of radio stations on a digital network akin to satellite radio like what seems to be the case in Norway.
  • HD Radio. The United States already has a band-aid approach to digital radio: In Band-On Channel, or IBOC. Read more about this technology. Simply put, the technology, although having its advantages and disadvantages in the DXing hobby, has been a commercial failure to the point where the average consumer likely has no idea what HD radio is, nor do they have any interest in obtaining an HD-capable radio. If the consumer base is not into hybrid digital radio, would they be interested in a digital FM transition to full digital FM (or DAB) signals? Likely not. Additionally, radio stations–at least in the Washington, DC area–have had an on-again, off-again adaption of the technology to the point where it seems like nobody cares.
  • Money.  I don’t see the media giants interested in investing lots of money to upgrade existing equipment and facilities to handle an all-digital FM transmission, especially when the HD Radio technology, according to various news reports, didn’t take off as investors have hoped. If one digital technology is lackluster, why shell out money for something very similar?
  • Satellite radio. Although satellite radio does exist in other countries, I see this as the ‘DAB-equivalent’ in the United States. It is a subscription service and not everyone has it.
  • Availability of FM radios. Let’s face it–almost every single car, clock radio, and electronic gizmo in the U.S. has an analog FM radio in it (or, it has the capability of connecting to a radio somehow). The technology is ubiquitous. Risking such an easy access to a radio signal by requiring listeners to install some sort of digital-to-analog conversion device would be ridiculous and cost-prohibitive. I see it totally different from the digital TV transition because it was a different beast–radios are more plentiful than TVs and are more portable, for the most part. While the average American may be fine with purchasing a single converter box for their living room TV, they are likely not going to buy a radio converter box for their bedside alarm clock, a second box for the stereo system in the den, then additional converter boxes for all three cars in the garage.

What I do see happening, however, is possibly a move to an all-IBOC FM Band–one where every signal is digital using the HD Radio technology, but without any analog signal for the HD sidebands to ride on. I recently wrote about this predicition. This, of course, assumes that the HD Radio technology can operate without an analog channel. In my prediction, I still see highly DX-able frequencies in the 88-108 MHz band that would keep the hobby continuing. An all-IBOC FM band does not mean the end of FM DXing in the United States. I don’t see this happening for at least ten years–but this is just a guess on my part.

Does this mean the FCC won’t, one day, make a similar announcement to what Norway recently had? With the auctioning of VHF and UHF space and other happenings with the broadcast spectrum–anything’s possible. However, I don’t think we’re going to see such a drastic switch-off in the United States–at least not for a while.

I think it’s a shame that the FM DXing hobby is facing extinction in parts of the world due to technological innovations. Does FM DXing have a future? Yes, I think it does. But I predict a struggle ahead in some shape or form for all DXers–be it new translators popping up on every free frequency, or in cases of our friends in Norway–the lack of a suitable radio band to actually DX.

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