Radio on the road – is DAB the long-term solution?

Simon Mason, Head of Broadcast Radio Technology at Arqiva, writes about the rise in demand for digital radio and driverless cars, for RadioToday.

According to the latest figures from RAJAR, 63 per cent of all adults listen to radio in cars, or other modes of transport during the average week, and more than half of all radio listening is now done via a digital platform.

The rise in demand for digital radio in cars is being recognised by the automotive industry, with DAB receivers installed in 91.4 per cent of new cars sold during July and September this year, up from 87.5 per cent last year.

We expect DAB to continue to go from strength to strength over the coming years as coverage and installed bases increase. However, in an age of digital innovation and transformation, does DAB represent the in-car entertainment option of the long-term future?

Increasingly connected cars

We are already witnessing the transformation of entertainment in the home, as the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple introduce new connected devices from smart TVs to fridges, and it won’t be long before in-car experiences are revolutionised too.

In fact, some of the most significant changes around in-car entertainment are coming from the introduction of connected technologies such as smart dashboards and integrated voice assistants.

The demand for live interactive content remains a huge driver of in-car entertainment, but we expect the focus to be on building technologies that will supplement DAB rather than replace it. For example, the addition of location technology could open up opportunities for broadcasters to target specific groups or individuals with hyper-local content (including advertising) across their channels.

The driverless era

The biggest challenge to the growth of digital radio in cars will most likely come from the move towards driverless vehicles – after all, where will radio fit in when drivers have their hands free to use any form of media they like?

We remain a long way off the days where robots are responsible for driving everyone from A to B, but the technology required for autonomous driving is advancing rapidly, and it is certainly something both the radio and automotive industries need to keep an eye on.

It is difficult to accurately predict how consumer behaviour will change in the driverless era, however an analysis of media usage on trains can provide a strong indication. Passengers engage with a range of different media services during their journeys, which includes radio, podcasts, music, gaming and video.

The demand for constant streams of information and entertainment means there will be opportunities for digital radio content providers to create exciting new hybrid services. It is as much an opportunity as a threat to DAB radio, and we are already having conversations with our customers on the ways these can be exploited.

Smartphones and the race to 5G

Despite the popularity of DAB, general radio consumption via mobile phones and tablets has also been on the rise, with a quarter of adults using these devices to listen to radio at least once a month.

We’re now starting to see smartphone apps being used as an alternative method of listening for drivers.

However, while 4G is perfectly capable of delivering radio services, this is only the case on a lightly loaded network. The problems start to arise when a car is stuck in a traffic jam, or passing through a heavily congested area – suddenly, you have multiple vehicles battling for a limited amount of mobile connectivity, and user experience is greatly reduced. Not only does this create the obvious issues with missed content, but it could also lead to drivers having to interact with their phone on multiple occasions, which has obvious safety issues. As the number of cars on UK roads increases, so does the problem.

The arrival of 5G and its promised super-speeds could change this, but that remains dependent on capacity and the appetite of the Mobile Network Operators to invest. Meanwhile you still have the safety and legal implications around using mobile phones in vehicles to consider, adding further justification for the use of in-built DAB over mobile connected radio.


Over the past five years Arqiva has built hundreds of new DAB transmitters and it’s getting harder to find a stretch of motorway in the UK without at least one group of digital stations to listen to.

We are also working with car-makers to improve car antennae to achieve truly uninterrupted services, and with a final phase of investment, DAB coverage in the UK will be comparable with FM.

This work comes with the belief that despite the influx of connected devices and move towards autonomous driving, digital radio will remain central to in-car entertainment for the foreseeable future. The challenge we have now is to continue innovating to ensure our audiences enjoy the best possible user experience, both now and when driverless motoring arrives.

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  1. Adrian says

    Hyper local content will probably ONLY be advertising the way things are going!.

  2. Mr Boltar says

    DAB isn’t the solution to anything. It never was and never will be. And 4/5G for broadcast might work if piggybacked on the phone system but no doubt it’ll be chargable though this will be buried in the smallprint somewhere with the marketing wonks hoping no one notices.

    1. Mb23 says

      DAB is the solution to a capacity problem on FM.

      FM can only fit in 5 national networks (and 4 of them are owned by the BBC).

      1. sj says

        It’s not a future-proof solution to anything. We’ve basically adopted a delivery platform akin to the Minidisc. It’s, at best, a stopgap between FM and something better, perhaps 5G. And given the many other options for in-car entertainment, it’s not even a particularly good stopgap.

        1. Joe Smith says

          There are no future-proof solutions to anything though are there?

      2. Mr Boltar says

        The band used for DAB could have been a 2nd FM band. Problem solved.

        1. Mb23 says

          It wouldn’t have worked on portable FM radios because the frequencies are too high.

          1. Mr Boltar says

            Yes, but FM radios can’t receive DAB either, however new radios could have the new FM band built in without all the poor quality and dropout nonsense you get with DAB.

  3. sj says

    My DAB radios at home have long been collecting dust in the garage because smart speakers offer me much better quality audio and more choice. Similarly, in the car I find streaming radio from my phone is robust enough 98% of the time, and the rest of the time I listen to podcasts or Spotify. The trouble with DAB is we adopted it too early in the UK and so we’ll now struggle to fully replace it with the much-better DAB+. We’re getting to the point now where some services sound appalling as we try to cram more stations into limited bandwidth. I believe DAB will be obsolete before it has a chance to become our primary delivery platform.

    1. Mb23 says

      DAB accounts for nearly three quarters of digital radio listening (about 40% of total listening) because it’s convenient to use and most people don’t want to use up data allowance on streaming from their phone.

      The research consistently shows that most people are satisfied with the audio quality.

      1. Mr Boltar says

        Irrelevant. Most people are happy with mp3 quality. Does that mean wav, ogg, CD or other formats shouldnt be available?

  4. sj says

    It’s not a future-proof solution to anything. We’ve basically adopted a delivery platform akin to the Minidisc. It’s, at best, a stopgap between FM and something better, perhaps 5G. And given the many other options for in-car entertainment, it’s not even a particularly good stopgap.

  5. Andy says

    When DAB 1st started music stations were in stereo but as more were added most gone mono so Digital 1 and all other multiplexes need to change to DAB+ so stereo can be permanent. I like Absolute but mono is awful when am driving around unless you get near London for local DAB which is linked with 105.8 fm

  6. Dave G says

    In the early 70s we listened and enjoyed on AM not because it was great quality but because it was all there was on car radios at the time. Now we listen on Dab because for certain stations it’s the only way. (streaming aside). I find it incredable in 2019 we have to put up with low bit mono abysmal quality on our highly capable modern car radios. And the station owners couldn’t care less.

    1. Jerry Stock. says

      I agree. Broadcasters are only interested in quantity not quality.
      Take Jazz FM and their proud boast to be in Stereo ( 25 years late) and then look at the bandwidth they broadcast in !
      I use the mobile network for 95% of my in car listening, irs almost faultless and great quality.

  7. Willie Bone says

    Is DAB the long term solution? NO, 4G/5G is/will be the best solution!
    DAB never did make the grade, it failed to eclipse FM as the benchmarker for audio quality! So, a frequency modulated system, specified back in the 1930s, knocked out DAB in the first round!
    DAB enthusiasts never fail to bleat, ‘programme content is king, audio quality is not Important!’ Yet, they failed to realise, music loving radio listeners migrated from AM to FM Stereo because the sound quality was more exciting!

    1. David S says

      Where I live I can receive 2 commercial services on FM.


  8. Michael V says

    I think DAB will exist long term but only DAB+. [We don’t need to list the benefits of DAB+ over old DAB MPEG2.] But it will exist next to internet radio. Big broadcasters will have migrated from FM, leaving the FM band for community & student radio. As we move into the electric car generation AM radio will vanish completely as it will be impossible to listen to that in an electric vehicle. BMW have already killed off the MW & LW bands from their electric car.
    Those are my thoughts.

  9. Derek Emery says

    I’m in a minority as I listen to classical music. I suspect DAB is aimed at the majority who listen to the many popular music stations.
    To me the sound quality of DAB is noticeably inferior to FM and to internet radio. I’m not keen on DAB quality.
    At home and in the car I use FM but once FM goes I will buy an internet radio rather than use DAB. Incidentally this will give a bigger choice of classical stations.
    Maybe 5G with the latest coding schemes on a smartphone would give OK quality for a car, using bluetooth to link to the car audio system? Who knows?
    The other alternative would be to load tons of classical music on smartphone so radio is not required when in the car. Audio doesn’t need much memory even at high bit rates. You can use CDs at the moment but I guess these will be gone in future.

  10. Radio Geordie says

    Its all well and good that cars have DAB radios fitted, but that’s only because they now have to. But they also still have AM and FM and most listeners will stick to those as they offer an unbroken signal for many, many miles whereas DAB can barely manage a few hundred yards before it disintegrates.
    And that’s the problem which needs to be sorted out before there’s any hint of an analogue switch-off which seems to be at least another 10 years off.

  11. Graham says

    I hope DAB in cars goes from strength but the one in my Lexus is so difficult to use, I find myself using Tunein on my phone and connecting it to the radio in the car through Bluetooth and listening to the same radio stations that are on DAB but are just too hard to find!

  12. Ray Woodward says

    The long term solution is as they already do it in the states – mobile phone and blutooth.

    Sadly over here we have to suffer the flat earth society (who still cling pointlessly to AM for some idiotic reason) so it will be some years before we catch up 🙁

  13. Håkon says

    I live in Norway, the only country in the world without nationwide FM broadcast, only DAB+. The main argument for the switch was that we needed more radio chanel for varius content.
    We have got a lot of different radiochannels, but they all have almost the same content: Advertising, some very short news bulletins (about one minute) and music. There is almost no quality programs to find on any of the available radio channels. Because there are so many channels, the bandwith must be shared, so the quality of each channels is not good at all. They gave us variety, but use their radio stations for contet that it is not good for. At home I don’t need DAB radio at all, as I can get better audioquality and even more variety from internet, or even from my TV-provider (satelite or cable).
    For listening in car I have to buy a new radio and add another antenna or use an DAB adapter with an antenna taped to the cars front window. Many of these adapters are poor quality, especially the antennas, so most of the time one can her this message: «No signal». They tell us that DAB coverage is very good now, even better than FM. That is not my experience at all. In my area I can drive hours without any DAB signal at all. Radio listening is all time low now, so low that they had to bring in a new provider tomeassure radio listening. The new device record you as a a listener if you are somewhere where the radio is turned on, like a cade or petrol station.
    I have nothing against DAB, but the really bad desission was to turn off FM. We have had technical switchovers many times, but most of the time these have given us something better, like better TV, better audio quality (AM vs FM). What does DAB give us? A lot of new music channels that we can all listen to from internet or smartphone. Or we can play our own music.
    Nothing about DAB is better, not even audio quality, whitch is a huge downgrade from FM. DAB can transmit good audio, but they do not.

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