DAB Experiences in Marseille, France 2016

Report for CMFE from a local DAB BroadcasterCassis2015

In France as in other countries, digital radio isn’t a new thing anymore. On April 10 1996, a new law (N°: 96-299), and the first experiments in the Île-de-France region made a start with Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). Ever since, DAB has remained a complicated business and has only progressed in small but calculated steps, as will become clear in the following chronological overview.Still today, as active participants, we are confronted with very diverse opinions and interests. Because we want the field of culture and radio in the West to be diverse and all wants for information, education, entertainment and spirituality to be taken into account as much as possible, the needs of each individual broadcaster can also be diverse. Unfortunately, markets, money, publicity and competition play a dominant role in the field of media and influence the offer of general broadcasting, as they do in other fields. Non-commercial radio stations receive financial support from taxes of advertising profits from commercial radios. Broadcasting groups like NRJ or RTL continue to make big profits. If anything, they want less competition in the future and therefore view digital broadcasting’s potentially increasing offer of bandwith and channels as a threat. It is sometimes said that DAB technology is already outdated, but what is it exactly, why is it useful and which are its advantages? In this text I would like to contribute some thoughts to a better general understanding.

Topics covered in the text:

Download this text as pdf here: Theme_DAB_France_1

Further reading on Digital Community Radio here: Digital Community Radio


DAB in France

DAB and VHF/FM radio (very high frequency/frequency modulation) both use electromagnetic waves to send radio programming from transmitters to receivers. In either case, listeners do not require a subscription, neither do they require a computer or internet connection. In order to listen digitally, listeners only need a new radio receiver, which, besides VHF/FM, can also receive DAB+/DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting). In the future DAB+/DMB receivers will also be capable of receiving DRM30/DRM+ (Digital Radio Mondiale / Worldwide Digital Radio). Broadcasting by any broadcaster is public and therefore freely accessible. Unlike internet radio (IP – web-radio), DAB and VHF/FM do not allow for listener statistics and other listener data to be collected. This might well be the reason why both government and commercial broadcasters don’t seem overly interested in developing digital radio. The official position of public service is that today they cannot afford a double coverage (VHF/FM as well as DAB). In recent years, Radio France has invested more in the development of internet portals than in the development of a future network of DAB transmitters.

Operating with audio compression (48 – 128 kb/s in AAC+), a DAB+ transmitter can broadcast between 9 and 16 different programs and their meta-data. The sound quality after AAC+ 96 kb/s compression corresponds to the well known mp3 192 kb/s 48 kHz format (mp2 layer3). Broadcast Programs  are collected by a multiplex channel operator in a diversity of ways (internet, IP, directional radio link, satellite transmission) and get combined into a multiplex signal. Following the French CSA (Conseil Supérieur Audiovisuel, “High Council for Audiovisual Affairs”) regulations, this requires a legal status, e.g. a SARL (.Ltd or LLC) or similar company status. In 2008, early on in the process of DAB broadcasting zone attribution, Etienne Bastide from Radio Galère (one of the first community radios in Marseille) founded the Société de Diffusion Numérique (SDN, “Digital Broadcasting Society”) together with other partners and acquired rights to operate multiplex channels. Today 5 out of 9 of the participants in the local multiplex channel 8C are members of SDN.

In order for the programs, combined into a DAB multiplex, to reach listeners (using one or more DAB transmitters), an authorised DAB broadcasting operator is needed. In France, radio stations (also called “editors” in DAB slang) can take on this role themselves. Many French local radios broadcast using their own VHF/FM transmitters, which is a very cheap solution. In order to organize best function and maintenance of the DAB transmitters ourselves, we founded a non-profit organization to carry the legal responsibility. To this end, Radio Galère, Radio Grenouille, Radio Culture Outre Mer, Radio JM and Radio Zinzine founded the Marseilles based Association de Diffusion Numérique « ADN » (“Association for Digital Broadcasting”(Association Loi 1901).

For all of us radios, linked to the multiplex channel 8C, this was the cheapest solution. An existing broadcast tower could be adapted for DAB by simply adding the required equipment.

Our experience shows that technical and financial investment for one DAB transmitter broadcasting 9 to14 programs adds up to only one tenth of costs what is needed for 9 to 14 VHF/FM transmitters with the same power. In Marseilles, the cost of a DAB+ service with 96 kb/s and 4 KW effectively radiated power (ERP) is around 400-500 € monthly. This depends on the exact location and rent charges as well as the specific equipment standart.

RNT (Radio Numérique Terrestre, “terrestrial digital radio”) officially started broadcasting in Paris, Marseille and Nice on Friday 20 June 2014. In Marseilles, the SDN multiplex was the first one to be on-air. The first field strength measurements confirmed the prognosis of coverage simulations realised with Radio Mobile (Freeware from Roger Coudé). About 80 % of the local target area is properly covered. Part of the not fully covered target areas have to be covered by adding complementary transmitters before 2019, using the same channel (8C on 199,360 MHz). DAB allows us the establishment of a Single Frequency Network (SFN), which uses less energy and provides better coverage. This is nearly impossible using existing VHF/FM technology, because overlapping of coverage areas causes very unpleasant distortions. Field research shows that synchronized use of multiple DAB+ and DRM+ transmitters gives better coverage, even with lower power. For this we are currently developing the technical equipment which will be based on low-cost Open Source Linux software. Seen from a distance, all of this might sound very adventurous, but for small community radios, these are simply survival dynamics.

Can DAB replace VHF/FM?

In my opinion, the answer is no. Many small community radios don’t have the technical and financial resources to join in a DAB multiplex channel with other radios. Moreover, in many areas there are simply too few of them to fill up a non-commercial multiplex channel. These radios depend on VHF/FM for their survival. The only possible alternative for them would be the DRM+ format, which is conceived for up to 3 audio programs including their meta-data and fully compatible with DAB+ in frequency band 3 (between 174 and 230 MHz). For example, Radio Zinzine will also continue to use 10 transmitters in VHF/FM for the coming 10 years, as long as DRM+ hasn’t been properly introduced. For this reason we support the maintaining of the VHF/FM system and the introduction of DRM+, until the latter enters the market as a potential digital alternative to VHF/FM. By market, I mean that everyone can afford to buy a cheap receiver capable of receiving DAB+/DMB, DRM30, DRM+ and FM. At that moment, the integration of internet radio through IP will present a little extra for a perfect European radio receiver.

What are the difficulties of DAB?

There are several scenarios, each of which has its own legitimacy, depending on the situation. In France, the public radio has officially abandoned the DAB/RNT projects under government administration. The reason mentioned is the current budgetary impossibility to provide both VHF/FM and DAB/RNT coverage. Existing MW transmitters have also been turned off temporarily for budgetary reasons. In recent years, both public and private radio stations have invested lots of money in the development of their websites. By including pictures, articles and podcasts they’ve expanded their offer beyond the mere radio programming of days gone by. Internet clearly is the way to go, with ever expanding advertising possibilities. Public broadcasting is more than ever at the mercy of competition. Through too much new competition, DAB could disturb the advertising market. The reality of the last years in France is that more local VHF/FM stations stopped operating than those who started new with broadcast using DAB.

Perspectives of DAB/RNT

Technically, DAB/RNT is the more cost-effective method of broadcasting coverage (including DRM + or DRM30) on short and medium wave. Internet radio can be a useful addition to this, but not a substitute. A future change of French broadcasting’s VHF/FM to digital broadcasting techniques can not be excluded in the future. Of course this would require that a majority of the French population would have a corresponding receiver at their disposal. As a pioneer in this field, small radios are grouped in the available RNT multiplex channels and share the costs. Today the majority of the local radio stations, just like the big radio stations, also have their own websites with web-radio. Nowadays DAB/VHF/FM and web-radio exist side by side.

Among the players developing digital radio, automotive industry plays a significant role. Retrofitting old cars for DAB turns out to be rather difficult. It needs a new antenna and a new receiver or additional converter. Germany’s car park gets renewed on average every 10 years. Already today, each new car sold has to be equipped with a VHF/FM/DAB adapted radio with multi-band antenna. According to unofficial information this is already partly the case – the only thing left to do to activate this service is reprogramming the receiver.

On 10 December 2015, the CSA will presented a plan for new tenders, after which most large cities should have DAB coverage by 2023. A French law stipulates that, when more than 20% of the population has DAB coverage, all new radio receivers introduced on the market have to be fit for receiving DAB. DAB+ has imposed itself as today’s standard in France. Not a single non-commercial radio station is eager to complicate it’s editorial work by including images, video clips and complex extra service. The possibility to enhance the offer through radio text with short messages, program informations, artist or album names or traffic information is well developed for DAB, as is already partly the case with RDS for VHF/FM.

In any case, Future receivers should independently find the best signal for any station on all bands and switch automatically. For the DAB standard, this function is provided by entering the respective PI codes or the URL for IP. This is working remarkably well, even here in Marseilles. Whenever our car leaves the area covered by the DAB transmitter, the car radio automatically finds the correct VHF/FM frequency. Some receivers have two receivers built in, the first of which can be used to listen to a chosen transmitter while the second one is already searching for a potentially better alternative signal.

When buying a new DAB/FM receiver, make sure to get a three-line LCD display, which is clearly visible also in outdoor environments with stronger light. These convincingly stand the test when compared to graphically more sophisticated multi-color displays, which are common on smart-phones but unfortunately hard to read outdoors. I personally would give five very big stars to the SONY XDR-P1DBP receiver for its user-friendliness and good signal reception quality. Listening to the radio has become a real pleasure again. This small, practical device with built-in battery has a single but very good speaker. Added headphones offer a very good stereo sound, which completely covers the 20-20 000 Hz spectrum.

Have fun listening to the radio!

Short historical overview – DAB in France (based on www.csa.fr) :

Based in Paris, the CSA (Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, “High Council for Audiovisual Affairs”) is the official French regulating authority which manages broadcasting authorizations for public as well as private radio stations.

22 February 2005. CSA organises a public consulation about digital radio to enquire about the expectations and projects of stakeholders on technical, editorial and scientific levels. Meanwhile DAB gives rise to RNT (Radio Numérique Terrestre – “terrestrial digital radio”).

9 February 2006. CSA presents the consultation’s conclusion. 47 contributions from professional organisations, publishers, radio, sattelite and telecommunication service providers. CSA wishes to continue technical testing of DVB-H, DMB, DRM, IBOM.
They start a study of the frequency capacities in band 3 (VHF 174-230 MHz) to test the possibilities of establishing a nation-wide coverage. (In my opinion, this is when the development takes a turn in which smaller local radios have a hard time finding their place.)

3 October 2006. CSA starts a consultation about tendering for candidates for local and nation-wide radio services and prolongs the closing date until 15 November 2006.

30 May 2007. CSA assigns 8 broadcasting authorizations in bands 3 and L.

3 January 2008. T-DMB is enacted as the norm for radio broadcasting service in band 3 and L. T-DMB: Terrestrial Digital Multimedia Broadcasting. (This includes additional metadata in the form of text, images and video clips.)

26 March 2008. Beginning term for applications for operating authorizations for digital radio.

7 October 2008. More than 350 applications for broadcasting authorization are submitted. (At that point Radio Zinzine wasn’t among them yet.)

26 May 2009. Pre-selection of applicants. 9 Radio France programs are legally included.

8 September 2009. CSA adopts an optimised frequency plan for band 3. All channels initially intended for band L are moved to band 3.

16 May 2011. Further broadcasting tests are carried out and assessed.

23 April 2012. Since the first preselection in May 2009, considerable changes have occurred through withdrawals or newly added applications. The assigning of authorizations for coverage areas Paris, Marseille and Nice need reviewing. These authorizations should be assigned before the end of 2012. After some protests and judicial decisions at the highest level, the application deadline is moved to 31 May 2012.

7 June 2012. For the coverage areas of Paris, Marseille and Nice 178 applications have been submitted.

15 January 2013. 107 publishers’ (radios) applications are approved. In Paris, Marseille and Nice 19 multiplex channels can be occupied. (This time Radio Zinzine is among them.)

20 June 2014. Marseille, Paris and Nice start their first DAB multiplex broadcasting.
Until today further broadcasting tests are carried out in Nantes and Lyon using DAB+.

10 December 2015. CSA presents a plan for new tenders until 2023. DAB should be provided in all big cities. A French law stipulates that when more than 20% of the population has DAB coverage, all new radio receivers introduced on the market have to be fit for receiving DAB+/DMB. DAB+ (rather than DMB) has imposed itself as today’s RNT standard in France.

Author / Contact: Klaus Hinkeldein, technical department of Radio Zinzine, president of the Association de Diffusion Numérique, 13003 Marseille: contact@adn13.fr

Contacts for DAB, DRM, FM, … (CMFE Board and Expert Group): Marko Ala-Fossi, Pieter de Wit, Lawrie Hallett, Helmut Peissl, Friederike Maier, Christer Hederström, …