Technology First Look

Norway will become the first country to ditch FM radio

Norway leads the world in switching off FM radio, but many are unhappy with the change. 

Worker Ino Andre Nilsen shows a digital adapter that can be plugged into a car FM radio in an electronics shop in Oslo, Norway on Wednesday.
Alister Doyle/REUTERS
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All ears will be on Norway next week as it becomes the first country to switch off FM broadcasts and move entirely to digital.

Digital audio broadcasting, or DAB, is a newer standard offering a number of advantages over traditional analog signal, including the potential to carry a greater variety of stations with clearer sound. Not everyone is happy about the change, however, with a recent poll showing a majority of the population stands opposed to the upgrade.

The switch won’t happen overnight. The northern county Nordland will lead the way on Wednesday, with the rest of the country following suit over the course of the year.

The primary reason is cost. The government estimates that FM is eight times as pricey, and some stations are currently broadcasting on both. Focusing resources on digital is predicted to bring annual savings of more than $23 million (200 million Norwegian crowns), which the government plans to invest in new radio stations.

“Radio digitisation will open the door to a far greater range of radio channels, benefiting listeners across the country. Listeners will have access to more diverse and pluralistic radio content, and enjoy better sound quality and new functionality,” Minister of Culture Thorhild Widvey said in a statement.

And there will be plenty of space for all that new content too. Digital technology has a higher tolerance for overlapping broadcasts, a practice called multiplexing. Taking advantage of this feature has already allowed Norway to greatly expand the number of national radio stations.

“Whereas the FM system only had space for five national channels, DAB already offers 22, and there is capacity for almost 20 more,” Widvey explains.

But not everyone is convinced.

When the government announced the change in 2015, more than half of radio listeners were already in the habit of tuning in daily on digital, but critics worry that figure is too low. Reuters reports that two million cars lack the necessary equipment, which means that, without a costly upgrade, they won’t have access to emergency broadcasts.

Much of the population is unhappy too. A recent poll found that 65 percent of Norwegians are against the switch, with only 19 percent in support. A car adapter can cost as much as $175.

DAB stations are broadcasting in 35 countries, many of which will be watching Norway’s transition closely. Switzerland has scheduled an FM shutdown for 2020, and the UK and Denmark are considering similar moves, the CBC reports. “Many countries are now looking to Norway to learn,” said Ole Jørgen Torvmark , CEO of Digital Radio Norway.

As for the United States, FM radio fans are safe for now. A proprietary digital standard called HD radio exists, but coverage is less extensive than subscription-based satellite radio competitors.

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