Norway’s FM Switch-off & “My Place in the Mountains”

So Norway has taken the world’s lead in radio broadcasting: To be the first country to switch off FM radio. With big fan fare they started the process in the northern county of Nordland earlier in the month.

I’m not surprised. I’ve known since 2008 they were going to do it, when I had first-hand experience of the shape of Norwegian broadcasting to come.

 In that year I was contracted to build a TV station in Stavanger for the city’s evening paper, which was expanding into broadcasting. The Stavanger Aftenblad had purchased local TV station, TV West, and where relocating it into their new combined services building, the Aftenblad Mediahus and I was one of the team contracted to build it.

Stavanger Mediahus

No, its not Ikea....

Glue & String

Part way through the build, after learning of my background, I was asked by the engineering manager if I could rebuild their radio station too. With some glue and string I delivered a workman like product (perhaps the subject of a later blog, who knows) but it was when I was enquiring about the design of transmission chains that I was to see the shape of Norwegian broadcasting to come. Enquiring about the transmission platforms the station was using, I was informed not to bother with FM as the licence was being returned in the near future since Norway was coming off FM. The emphasis would be in DAB and, most significantly, on-line.

At the time I thought it was just crazy. Cast your mind back to 2008, DAB in the UK was still fairly low key and streamed services hamstrung by bandwidth (this is pre fibre to home and mobile providers charging significant amounts for data packages).
But, at the time, Norway was well ahead of many in its data infrastructure. I list two examples to illustrate this: I recall marvelling at watching Barack Obama’s inauguration, in full HD, being streamed into the Mediahus via its 100Mb pipe and, in the apartment I was living in, having a 2Mb fibre handle all the services: Phone, broadband, TV, electricity meter reading, burglar alarm: The lot. And every new-build was having fibre installed as standard.

So in a country whose terrain was hostile to FM radio and had such a mature data infrastructure, moving from FM didn’t seem such a leap in the dark.

All well and good so far, but commentators on the switch-off have mentioned that Norwegian radio broadcasters maybe at a disadvantage in the one place most radio listening takes place as in-car DAB is in less than 25% of Norwegian’s cars.

I can offer an explanation for this: It’s well known that Norway’s great standard of living is paid for through high taxation. When I lived there, in addition to standard VAT, there was additional 23% tax on the purchase of alcohol, eating out and cigarettes (an evening-out became very expensive!)

"I'm off to my place in the mountains"

Around 2005 the Government introduced a purchase tax on new cars, making them about one-third more expensive than the rest of Europe. The result was that I saw a great many older cars on the road. This didn’t seem to bother Norwegians, unlike the UK who regard a new motor as a status symbol, for Norwegians the two aspirations are a boat and, even more so, “ A place in the mountains”. This latter purchase could be anything from a palatial chalet, with a hot tub and fire-pit to the real show-stopper, a hut in the middle of no-where with no heat, light of power.

Whatever it maybe, come Friday “I’m off to my place in the mountains” was a phrase I would regularly hear.

Place In The Mountains

I don't think the neighbours will bother you....

So you can see why in-car DAB listening is low. Old cars simply aren’t fitted with such receivers. Of course adaptors exist but, in honest, who fits these?

Mobile streaming, on the other hand is different, and this could be the saving grace, at least in the short term, until the convenience of in-car DAB catches up. In spite of the all those mountains mobile coverage is good, and coupled with free-to-cheap data packages, listening via their phone is probably a viable option for Norwegian radio listeners.

But if that’s the case, where does that leave DAB then?

Perhaps only something you tune-into when relaxing in your “place in the mountains”?

Iain Betson