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Digital car radio to debut in BMW in Australia
BMW claims to be first car brand in Australia to offer optional digital in-car radio
5 Apr 2011
BMW will become the first manufacturer to offer DAB+ digital radios in Australian-delivered cars from May, adding the receivers to the options list of its 5 and 7 Series luxury cars plus that of the 6 Series when it arrives – in convertible form first – at the end of that month.
The digital radio option will be priced from $900 to $950 depending on model. In addition to sound quality benefits and an increased range of available stations, information such as track title and artist name, news headlines and weather reports can be displayed on the car’s infotainment screen.
BMW Group Australia told GoAuto that it expects the technology to be offered further down the model range in due course, although no time frame has been set for its introduction to the Mini or Rolls-Royce brands.
Mercedes-Benz has confirmed to GoAuto that it is to offer digital radio on some models from the second half of this year, while a Lexus spokesperson said the company was studying the feature and waiting for network coverage to expand beyond metropolitan areas.
Other luxury contenders, including Audi, were unable to provide details at the time of publication.
Commercial Radio Australia is one of the loudest voices in the campaign for Australians to adopt digital radio and one of the hurdles it faces at the moment is the lack of in-vehicle receivers here.
CRA chief executive Joan Warner said: “The announcement by BMW to offer DAB+ digital radio as an option in a number of models is a great step forward for drivers wanting to access digital radio in cars.
“Our research shows 33 per cent of commercial radio listening is in the car, and with leading brands like BMW making digital radio available in their vehicles, the technology can only move from strength to strength.”
CRA is offering incentives to manufacturers who agree to factory-fit digital radio receivers in their cars in the form of ‘bonus airtime’ when they buy advertising on participating commercial radio stations.
Ms Warner told GoAuto that BMW qualified for the bonus airtime but that it must negotiate the bonus directly with the networks on which it advertises, emphasising that the bonus applies to manufacturer advertising rather than dealer advertising and that the manufacturer must “actively promote” the digital radio feature.
From top: BMW 7 Series, 6 Series convertible, 5 Series.
Digital radio is available to almost 60 per cent of Australia’s population but limited to those living within the Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney metropolitan areas.
Trials are also operating in Canberra and Darwin, with transmissions to Hobart, Townsville and regional areas in the pipeline.
One reason behind BMW’s ability to deliver the technology Down Under is that Germany – a prolific vehicle manufacturing country – is now moving from the older DAB transmission standard to the fuller-featured DAB+ format used in Australia.
Other countries, including China, are also following this trend – or at least adopting DAB+ from the outset, which should lead to an increase in the number of vehicles produced with in-built digital radio receivers.
Further to this, CRA says component manufacturers are now producing circuitry for automotive use that can receive several digital radio formats, reducing the chance of country-specific incompatibility and making it easier for vehicle makers to roll out the technology internationally while maintaining economies of scale.
In addition, the French government has mandated digital radio fitment to all cars imported into France by 2013, while Norway has announced that FM will be switched off in favour of DAB/DAB+ in January 2017 and Singapore has almost 100 per cent DAB coverage.
The British Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders recently confirmed that by 2013 all new cars in the UK will be equipped as standard with digital radios. Similarly, Ford UK has confirmed that all its British-delivered models, starting with the new Focus, will feature the technology by the end of next year.
Until more manufacturers come onboard with in-built digital radios, Australian listeners keen to receive digital radio on the move can buy an aftermarket replacement CD/radio head unit with digital receiver, although this will cost about $300 plus installation.
A cheaper alternative at about $200 plus installation – and more realistic for modern vehicles with highly-integrated audio systems that hinders the fitment of aftermarket units – is a standalone digital receiver that connects to the car’s existing auxiliary input (normally used for MP3 players) or re-transmits the digital signal via FM to be picked up by the existing in-car radio.
The first trial of digital radio in Australia was in Sydney at the end of 2003, but the consumer network was not rolled out until the middle of 2009.
Existing ABC, SBS and commercial stations are now broadcasting in digital where the rollout is complete, with the addition of further digital-only stations often catering to special interests.
Sydney has 37 digital stations, while Melbourne gets 36, Brisbane 32, Adelaide 28 and Perth 27. Canberra’s trial encompasses 13 stations and Darwin has four.
There is some understandable reluctance to embrace digital radio because it is perceived as a stepping-stone technology with a short shelf-life. The last major shift in radio technology was when Australia adopted FM broadcasting in 1975 (after a false start in 1947).
The threat comes from internet-streaming radio – especially given the number of cars with on-board internet connections is set to mushroom.
Despite digital radio being unavailable outside Australia’s most populous cities, CRA argues that internet radio is not a viable option due to the lack of high-speed coverage in regional and remote areas and the unlikely prospect of streaming it through a mobile connection for in-car use in areas without mobile network coverage.
Internet radio also suffers – for now at least – from its reliance on the customer having paid for an internet connection whereas traditional broadcasting requires only an investment in the receiver.
Speaking at the European Broadcasting Union digital radio conference in Belfast last November, World Digital Media Broadcasting president Jørn Jensen said: “We have seen here today that internet radio is an integral part of radio’s future, however it cannot offer the mass market, free-to-air benefits which DAB, DAB+ and DMB can offer.”
The conference resulted in the European Broadcasting Union backing a move to switch over to digital radio in Europe.
However, the differing digital radio broadcasts standards adopted around the world, even in neighbouring European countries, could still result in cross-border drivers being unable to receive radio unless their vehicles are equipped with receivers that can decipher signals of varying nature.
CRA recently released figures showing that 700,000 Australians listen to digital radio in an average week in the main coverage areas and that more than 400,000 digital radios exist in the market.
These figures represent a 5.6 per cent increase in digital radio listening and an increase in digital radio sales of 185 per cent.
Ms Warner said: “We’re very pleased with these latest figures but recognise there is still much work to be done, particularly in relation to the roll out of digital radio to the rest of Australia.
“Our priorities over the next 12 months will be to build the growing metropolitan audience and the range of receivers available to them work on specific promotions with retailers work with car manufacturers to get DAB+ radios into cars and work with the government to plan the regional rollout.”
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