Are you joining the digital revolution?

Andy Burnham came to the Commons yesterday to tell us of his plans for digital Britain. Someone had already upstaged him by briefing the press overnight, and Number 10 held a morning briefing well before the Statement in the Commons. Parliament has come to expect that kind of treatment from this government, and does nothing to stop it.

Mr Burnham is thought at Westminster to be one of the brighter Ministers. He was certainly more sensitive to the mood of the House, and did not treat all Opposition MPs to idiot political soundbites. It was not, however, to be his great day.

There were not many people on his side of the House to urge him. It was a Thursday. Labour business managers rarely put anything on any more on a Thursday which requires a vote or sparks genuine debate so many MPs have taken to doing other things on such days. He announced a raft of new reports and quangos, whilst comparing the importance of what he was saying to the launch of the Penny Post in an oblique rhetorical flourish that was unlikely to work.

I asked two things. The House was so empty I felt I could ask a double question, something which most do as a matter of routine but which is bad form when time is pressing and other colleagues wish to be heard. I asked whether he shared my concern about the quality of broadcast sound in this country following the advent of digital radio. I have met several people now who share my experience. We have to place our radios up very high with their aerials fully extended to be able to hear an FM programme. These programmes are now more likely to be interrupted or to lose sound volume and quality. I also have reports of people experiencing similar difficulties in picking up programmes on digital. Former BBC technicians have said to me they think too much is being compressed onto narrow spectrum by the BBC, making it unlikely we will solve the quality problem by switching to digital. Mr Burnham expressed surprise and asked me to write to him about it so he could look into it.

I also asked when cricket lovers might be able to hear BBC cricket commentary on FM and digital rather than just on 198. Mr Burnham thought you could already.

Jeremy Hunt asked when there would be digital car radios. There was no answer to that either.

The Opposition pointed out that the government’s aim for faster broadband was taking a speed which was below the current average! At least that’s one target they might hit.
The digital revolution apparently will be powered by quangos, reviews and partnerships. Funny that. I thought it might be powered by finding reasons why people should buy a digital radio, and making sure they could then hear what they wanted to hear in good quality.

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38 Comments

  1. AndyC
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Yesterday I assumed that all this broadband stuff was just another eyecatching initiative to give the papers something positive to talk about. White heat of technology and all that. Foolish to think anything might actually happen, and if it does the market will have moved on anyway.

  2. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    More spin from a government desperate for good publicity. As usual, ill-thought out and with little regard for the real needs of the customer.

  3. Lola
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I heard a lot of this stufff on R4 yesterday. My response? “Andy Burnam. Please go away with all this. You have no idea what you’re doing. Let the free market sort it out.’ Another statist quangoista practising the ‘grand conceit’.

  4. no one
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    yep that speed can only be one of the poor technical approaches BT has been pushing for ages, such as fast lines to street side boxes, and then piggy back on old phone lines from there

    it will BE A TOTAL WASTE OF PUBLIC MONEY if we subsidise this substandard rubbish that will be unable to cope with predictable upgrades over the next few years

    we need OPTICAL FIBRE TO EVERY HOME so that the performance can be upgraded easily through time and the line itself is from the start capable of handling more traffic if the boxes at each end get upgraded

    and i hope we are not funding extra capacity between telco excanges where there is already overcapacity and some degree of market forces making change

    sadly the spin government is falling for spin from bt a company which should have been allowed to fail years ago

    • StevenL
      Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Replacing the old copper lines with coaxial cable and optical fibre would make more sense if we were going to embark of a taxpayer-funded ‘stimulus’.

  5. no one
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    DAB only works if you ignore the antenna fitted as standard on most home radios and replace it with a proper antenna from B & Q (or screwfix or similar) for about a tenner

    Make sure you buy a DAB radio where the standard antenna can be screwed out and the coax cable to a proper antenna can be screwed in replacement

    Vast majority of country has poor reception with anything other than a decent antenna

    http://www.screwfix.com/prods/23595/Electrical-Supplies/TV-Range/Aerials-Fixings/Omni-Directional-DAB-Radio-Aerial

    decent antenna can usually be hidden behind cabinet etc in most homes

    etc

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Excellent tip, thanks

  6. Stuart Fairney
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    JR, a personal request if I may; could you continue to lobby for the radio cricket commentary to be available on FM. The only car I have that gets LW is now getting very old and will soon have to be replaced.

    Somehow, being in a traffic jam on a sunny day is marginally more tolerable if you can listen to Henry Blofeld.

    • StevenL
      Posted January 30, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      My car doesn’t do FM either, we should get a petition going!

  7. Andrew Duffin
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Digital Radio is a technology nobody needs, which hardly anybody has put their money into voluntarily, and which ought to be left to wither on the vine.

    Quite why the government, or the BBC (same thing, really) feels the need to push this useless non-innovation quite so hard, is beyond my guessing.

    As for “Digital Britain”, has Mr. Burnham not noticed, or does he choose to ignore, the fact that almost all the country now has decently usable broadband thanks to the market, not the State?

    There is no need for any meddling in this matter, as usual.

  8. Dr Dan H.
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    As things stand at the moment, we has approximately four systems for delivering internet protocol connectivity to peoples’ homes.

    Firstly, we have the NTL/Telewest cable TV network, designed primarily to deliver oodles of TV channels to homes with internet as a useful side-line.

    Secondly, we have ADSL piggy-backing off the old analogue copper telephone systems.

    Thirdly we have assorted wireless radio systems, which usually work through BT’s faster data links and leave out the analogue copper altogether.

    Fourthly we have analogue modem lines; very slow but reliable.

    The only two of these we can improve are the NTL/Telewest cable TV system, and the BT ADSL system. Since the cable TV network is crippled with debts it is probably best to leave well enough alone, rather than prop up a possibly dying system.

    ADSL is therefore the logical choice to improve. It works by putting a high frequency signal over the existing copper telephone wiring; the closer to the exchange you are, the better the signal you get and the better the connectivity; ADSL2 merely uses higher frequencies (and thus higher bandwidth) to achieve better results at the expense of range.

    The easiest way to improve the ADSL is to put in a few more local telephone exchanges, linked by optical fibre to the main exchange; this reduces the length of copper to exchange distance and improves the signal; it also reduces the amount of copper that BT has to maintain.

    The advantage of this is that the technology is known and has existed for years so it is cheap, and BT have very good maps of their infrastructure so implementing the improvements isn’t going to be rocket science either. The only tricky bit is going to be persuading BT to lay new cable to outlying rural areas to connect outlying villages into ADSL broadband using one of the small local exchange boxes; THAT is where the costly bit is.

  9. Nick Lincoln
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    You CAN hear cricket on digital; on Five Live Sports Extra and it’s myriad siblings when cricket clashes with other events (soccer, rugby etc)

  10. Colin D.
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Why on earth should the taxpayer pay to provide broadband to every home? Those that really need it can pay for it. I suspect that most of the additional usage for this ‘free’ broadband will be social usage and downloading material of a dubious nature.
    One’s attitude to all this can be determined by asking yourself this simple question…If all computers were removed from schools, would academic standards rise or fall in the long term? I bet they would rise!

  11. Acorn
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Jaguars come with DAB radio as an option; I was in an 07 S-type this week that had it.

    I have three DAB radios now, all different makes, and all far to expensive. I have given up running them on batteries because they eat the things. My FM / DAB versions run five times as long on FM than they do on DAB stations.

    DAB was one of those technologies that was marketed before it was fully cooked; and, yes the EU had a hand in cocking it up, with the BBC. Wrong audio coding system; wrong error correction system; the only bit they got correct was the modulation system. To be fare, that was back in 1986. The technology moved on much faster than the BBC / EU politicos.

    Trying to pack too many programmes on one multiplex has been its down fall. We have even had FM stereo channels squeezed into mono at 80 kb/s; hopeless.

    Did the Minister mention DAB PLUS (DAB+). I don’t know when the UK will adopt this system, (not compatible with existing DAB radios that don’t have DAB+ mentioned on the tin?

    This link is a bit tech but explains what that BBC engineer was telling you John. (see:- Sound Quality para.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Audio_Broadcasting

  12. Cliff.
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I am always worried when the Labour government promises to provide everyone with something or other….Usually this means they will bring in a law to force someone or other to provide the thing without it being properly funded by HM government…..Bus passes for all OAPs and disabled people is a classic example; The government decreed that everyone that is an OAP or disabled can have free travel but, they did not fund it and we are now seeing local authorities struggling to fund the scheme and local bus companies stopping services as they can’t afford to drive bus loads of non fare paying passengers around all day without having their costs covered by the local authorities.

    I wonder whom Labour will force to pay for this latest wizzard wheeze?

    Don’t get me wrong, access for all to the digital network is a great idea however, the market will, in time, provide this without the need for government inteference.

  13. chris southern
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    So upgrading the internet connection speed involves lowering it and more quangos!
    Combine this with armed police on the A43 (yesterday) and we are already in Browns little run down comunist state.
    He will cause riots and it will unfortunately make the poll tax riots look tame i believe.

    • mikestallard
      Posted January 30, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree with this.
      The problem, of course, is that Socialist Britain happens slowly, so people get used to the second rate, then the third rate, then chaos.
      The other trouble is that riots have traditionally been from the Left. When, say, fox hunting or the anti smoking legislation was introduced, the Right didn’t really know how to respond – and was therefore run over. Now, the organisations which were thrown up are part of the system.
      The only reason I agree with you is because of this saying: “Beware the anger of the patient man.”

    • adam
      Posted January 31, 2009 at 12:30 am | Permalink

      illegal now to take photos of police of film them. Which explains why they have been teaching them and the PCSOs for ages that people who have cameras work for al-qaeda.
      Also think they passed at law making it illegal not to show your ID on demand.
      step by step.

  14. Neil Craig
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Transport & communications infrastructure is one of the things on which there is evidence that state investment actually works. I would be quite happy to see it putting in some of the money to get us up to the level of places like Japan & Korea with optical fibre. However the devil is in the detail & I hope they will hire a single competent manager rather than a quango & structure it in such a way it works with, rather than across, existing market providers.

    • mikestallard
      Posted January 30, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      What money?

  15. Mark Shillaker
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Andy Burnham has already shown how much he knows with his recent blathering about ‘age ratings’ for all websites.

  16. Derek W. Buxton
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Neill,

    Nice theory but look at the way things our provincial government do and then ask if that is a good thing. Certainly we need to scrap most if not all quangos right now. But government of any hue is not the best way to run anything. They should be in charge of Defence of the Realm, Law and Order and Foreign Affairs with a watching brief over the Bank of England, maybe, but little else. Unfortunately they involve themselves in everything at our expense and foul it up.

    Derek

  17. Derek W. Buxton
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Neill,

    Sorry, the first sentence has a wroong word order, it should read “the way our provincial government do things”.

    Derek

  18. DWL
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    John;

    DAB allows broadcasters to use a process called “Statistical Multiplexing” (stat-mux).

    If you have a fixed amount of radio bandwidth, operators can choose to put several radio channels into that bandwidth, each of variable bit rate. The transmitter calculates how much bandwidth should be assigned to each channel at each moment in time to get the best sound quality.

    If you consider a typical talk show, the ‘talk’ section will require a low bitrate (bandwidth) for the spoken voice parts, because the sound of a spoked voice contains relatively little information. However, as soon as some ‘pop’ music is played, the bitrate requirement will jump and the stat-mux will compensate for this.

    So when done properly, it is a way of optimising the sound quality for a number of channels in a fixed bandwidth.

    However, when done inappropriately; it is a method of squeezing far too many channels into too small a space, resulting in poor sound quality. Channels with a high continuous bit-rate (Think Radio 3 and Classical FM) suffer.

    Incidentally the same method is used for digital terrestrial TV as well.

    It would appear that DAB needs fewer, better quality channels.

    The underlying modulation scheme used with DAB is called OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex). Receivers needed for OFDM detection are very much more complicated than Analog FM transmitters, and as a result require a higher signal strength. This can be provided by i) turning up the transmit power, ii) using a bigger Receive antenna, iii) Moving closer to the transmitter, iv) Ensuring that the radio is not ‘shadowed’ by any big buildings, trees, or hills.

  19. no one
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Dr Dan H

    You have demonstrated quite clearly you do not understand comms technology

    ADSL is a dead end technology, already opeerating at the limits of its performance and the capacity of exchanges to physically house the extra bits of kit it demands, and is unable to work for homes too far from an exchange such as rural locations

    spending public money on anything which relies on copper to the home is a total waste, and apart from anything else the exchanges can never be big enough to phsically hold the kit needed if it were all ADSL

    BT wants fast broadband to street side box, and then piggy back on copper from there to home, cos they think its cheaper, and they think they can get big public subsidy for it, however their sums are all wrong, if you do the sums properly you would find that within a year or two optical fibres to homes would be a cheaper strategy

    wirless cannot support the nation, and 3G/2.5G/ or WLAN or their derivitives cannot possibly cope with much more traffic without a lot more base stations being put in place, and there are problems there, there needs to be physical links to most homes, mobile can only ever take a small proportion of traffic

    comms between phone exchanges and different telcos does not need a public subsidy, there is already over capacity as a legacy of the dot com bubble, and market forces work OKish

    we need to mandate optical fibre to all new build property for a start, from all new build exchanges, and only put public money into optical fibre to homes – starting with rural places where nothing will ever work over current copper lines

    bloomin ek

    as ever if the conservatives want some input from someone with a clue do give me a ring

    • StevenL
      Posted January 31, 2009 at 5:08 am | Permalink

      There is no cost/benefit for telecoms providers to install fibre optic into rural areas.

      No one is forced to live in the sticks.

      • alastair
        Posted January 31, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        I don’t believe that. Fibre enables all kinds of new services, including various two-way things like movies-on-demand (OK, you can do this today via DSL, provided your connection is fast enough, but the thing is that rural connections rarely are due to the length of copper involved).

        Furthermore, the in-service life of a fibre would be quite long, so the cost could be amortised over many years.

        So I don’t buy the argument that there’s no cost/benefit for telcos who do this — there most certainly is. The question is whether they are prepared to or are able to fund the up-front cost of doing it.

    • Acorn
      Posted January 31, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      You haven’t mentioned the wireless alternatives”MMDS Wireless Broadband”; WiMax and BPL. Have a look at:-

      http://www.hometoys.com/htinews/jun07/articles/parks/rural.htm

      The rural broadband problem is much bigger in the US and Canada; that is where most of the lab work is done.

      • StevenL
        Posted February 3, 2009 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps the government could initally fund the installation cost whilst it’s cheap to borrow and sell the right to charge service providers for data traffic on the free market?

        We could get all these out of work investment bankers to package rural fibre optic up with inner city fibre optic into financial securities, then make markets to trade them on, first of all encourage the pension fund to buy them, then set up a market for future delivery of megabytes, next make retail markets and derivatives of the both the spot and the futures contracts and get the spread betters and speculative day traders involved.

        We could move towards a ‘data owning ‘ democracy!

  20. mikestallard
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I really hope that Global Warming and Climate Change produce some permanent winds which will keep the windmills turning to produce electricity.
    Otherwise, we needn’t worry that much about broadband because there will be no electricity in our cold little homes.
    But hey! – the unemployed are going to do our lofts!

    • StevenL
      Posted January 31, 2009 at 5:12 am | Permalink

      The idea of the umeployed lagging everyones lofts conjures up the paradox of both ‘casino capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ devouring themselves in tandem in my mind.

  21. Adrian Peirson
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Internet 1 is dead, long live Internet 2

    Do you really think Gordon is doing this Broadband thing for our Benefit, Nothing that the Executive does is for the Benefit of the British people.

    Please wake up.

    Internet 2, ( which is what this is really about ) flows through EU and Govt Servers, the Chinese state will be watching in envy at this.

    This is about controlling and shaping our perceived reality.

    http://www.infowars.com/?p=6989

  22. Anne Palmer.
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Now why am I bothered about going digital? In the present surveillance climate we now live in, why am i suddenly suspicious of digital Televisions? What a great means of tracking people, intruding on their privacy? Silly me, what a thought. BUT WHY? I do not think for one minute my present new Digital TV set is really worth the changing from old to new. Making redundant the present TV’s in every room in the house. Come on, there has got to be a better reason than dumping all the old TV sets and causing more pollution? There isn’t even one decent programme worth buying a n digital TV set for. So, why have we got to get rid of the old and bring on the digital that breaks up the picture when the weather gets a little foggy?

  23. Adrian Peirson
    Posted February 1, 2009 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Did someone say Internet radio.

    http://www.infowars.com/infowars.asx

  24. Alan Wheatley
    Posted February 1, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Digital Britain at Andy Burnham speed is a pathetic joke. It demonstrates a lack of understanding, a lack of vision and a lack of ambition for the Country.

    Something at least ten times as fast is required everywhere, and if tax payer’s money is to be spent on capital infrastructure projects then this has to be a valid contender.

    As for low population density rural areas I would have thought co-ax would be more cost effective than fibre.

    Wireless is irrelevant, other than in certain, specific applications, as it can not possible provide the bandwidth required.

    • alastair
      Posted February 1, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think co-ax would be a very good idea, actually. There are a number of problems with co-axial cabling, both in terms of grounding of the shield (which becomes a real issue if a cable run of any length is in use) and also in terms of the electrical effects of the shield, which are detrimental to high-speed data signalling.

      That’s why most high-speed data cabling these days is based around twisted pairs, and is very often (as in the case of standard Ethernet cabling) unshielded.

  25. no one
    Posted February 2, 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    re “most high-speed data cabling” actually the vast majority is OPTICAL FIBRE

  26. digital cameras for sale
    Posted April 3, 2009 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Commenting usually isnt my thing, but ive spent an hour on the site, so thanks for the info

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