When the Radio Signals Go Silent
Photo Source: Pixabay
(This post was originally published on December 18th, 2017.)
As of this week, Norway has officially become the first country to totally shut off its FM radio signals across the country in favor of digital broadcasting (Independent). While some rogue stations are still broadcasting, overall, if a car does not have the ability to take digital signals, they’ll have to forgo radio. This has been a change that the world has seen coming since 2011 when Norway announced this milestone, but nevertheless, there have been some objections to it. I am a DJ at my college radio station (“The Smol Cactus Radio Hour”— electronic music and alternative rock). For me, this comes at a big shock, because I couldn’t imagine a life without FM radio. There’s just something so cool about it.
First of all, how does radio even work? To get music into our cars on the road, there’s a bit of magical physics involved. Radio towers give off modified electricity into the air, which cars can pick up with their antennae (Lifewire). Radio stations connected to these towers give off certain frequencies (measured in Hertz), and we adjust our radios to pick up the assorted frequencies (this is why radio stations always have numbers attached to them, such as 91.5 WMFO or KISS 107.9). Digital Radio instead gives off digital signals made up of messages of 1s and 0s that translate into sound, and a car needs a special adapter to “pick up” these signals (Explain that Stuff). In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, gives out licenses for stations to broadcast frequencies (fcc. gov). In exchange with complying with certain broadcasting laws, such as broadcasting emergency service messages and not putting out obscene content, and making sure their radio tower is constructed properly, any entity is allowed to apply for broadcasting, whether they are large communication companies or local colleges.
In 2011, Norway made a big move to change all this, as it announced that they would be shutting off all of its FM broadcasting towers by December 2017 by shutting the radio towers off region by region starting at January 2017(Government of Norway). This was a change for two reasons. The first had to do with money. According to the Norwegian government, shutting off all the towers would save the government the equivalent of $24 million (200 million Kroner) per year (Huffington Post). The second reason has to do with the fact that they are switching to digital broadcasting (DAB). DAB broadcasting is seen as the way of the future because of the lack of noise interference, better reception (especially given the rough terrain in parts of Norway) clearer sound, and a bigger variety of options. However, the Norwegian people have opposed it, with 66% of citizens saying that they were opposed to the switch over (Huffington Post). At this moment, almost half the cars on the road in Norway do not have the technology to be able to use digital radio, and they will have to buy an adapter to get broadcasts in their cars. This is not that different from the United States’ switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, which was solidified in 2009 (AllConnect). However, it was required that every television made for the United States had to have a digital tuner in all of its televisions two years before the shift, and the government also provided a coupon for a digital adapter for old televisions. According to the government of Norway, the only requirement was to make sure there was an “affordable” solution for cars that don’t have digital radio already.
While digital broadcasting may very well be the broadcasting of the future, not everyone has been in favor of it. As most of the public opposes it, and almost half of cars do not have the suitable equipment to deal with digital radio, some argue that it may have been a switch too early. The United States has done similar initiatives in the past, namely for television, but the United States made sure that all new TVs were made to account for the new change.
At this moment, the United States does not have any plans to make the change from FM radio to digital anytime soon. However, it is important to remember that Norway had some good reasons for switching over, mainly because of the rough and remote terrain in regions of the country (DAB is a lot better for broadcasting over large terrain because unlike FM waves, DAB waves won’t fizzle out when they have to go through a hill). We will just have to wait and see; perhaps Norway actually did make the correct, perfectly timed switch, and we’re all just being left in the dust. Nevertheless, fear not, your favorite radio station is not going away just yet in the states.