Internet killed the (digital) radio star

Internet killed the (digital) radio star

Summary: During a trip to the US four years ago, I rented a car fitted with an XM satellite radio — which gave me well over 100 radio stations, each carrying a continuous stream of crystal-clear talk radio or music in a surprising array of genres.

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TOPICS: Browser, Broadband
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During a trip to the US four years ago, I rented a car fitted with an XM satellite radio — which gave me well over 100 radio stations, each carrying a continuous stream of crystal-clear talk radio or music in a surprising array of genres. Station ID, current song, artist and other information were displayed, and the broad reach of the satellite meant it worked even in the most rural areas.

Around 18 million Americans spend about US$10 a month for satellite radio, which is quite reasonable given the huge array of content they provide and the large distances Americans regularly drive.

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With that country's Federal Communications Commission this week indicating it may well approve the merger between XM and archival Sirius, the market is about to get the certainty and scale that was lacking in a protracted battle not unlike that between HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

Australia, on the other hand, still doesn't have satellite radio despite the fact its blanket coverage makes it ideal for providing equitable access across Australia's vast spaces. Instead, industry body Commercial Radio Australia (CRA) is looking towards digital radio, which uses conventional terrestrial broadcasting techniques to transmit high-fidelity sound and whatever gimmicky extras the content producers can think up.

Digital radio's progress in Australia has been glacial at best: trials began in 2003, but real, live digital radio services are expected to begin next year.

But that's not where the story ends: even when it goes live, CRA CEO Joan Warner told attendees at ACMA's recent Radcomms08 conference, that digital radio is being compromised by the lousy spectrum allocation it has received from the government.

Turns out the signal doesn't penetrate buildings, and drops off dramatically even if you're in the open but a building is obstructing your line-of-sight to the digital radio tower. "Our [coverage] predictions weren't accurate enough, and a driving tour [of Sydney's suburbs] shows a significant dip as you head behind buildings," Warner conceded. "We need enough field strength to make areas like that work."

That, she explained, means getting guaranteed access to frequency other than the 9A spectrum band — a TV-band frequency between 202MHz and 209MHz that was granted by ACMA for the trials.

These frequencies, Warner said, are "not optimum spectrum for our launch. We must have access to spectrum that enables us to broadcast across the whole licence area at appropriate power levels. This is a long-term investment, and we really can't launch the network [effectively] unless we know where we're going to be in five to 10 years' time — and currently we don't have that."

Perhaps I can clarify where digital radio is going to be in five to 10 years' time: nowhere.

It may have seemed like a good idea a decade ago, but digital radio is simply not important or relevant anymore. It is a "me-too" effort of the grandest scale, a redundant, pointless exercise born more from the industry's desire not to be left behind, than from any real need.

I don't think anybody's really complaining about the current AM/FM line-up. Whereas digital TV is the only way to deliver HD and its eye-popping resolution, digital radio offers little real advantage over conventional analog radio.

Honestly, who needs to hear Kyle and Jackie O in 5.1 surround sound? Apart from the few dozen SACDs on the market, almost no content out there has even been mastered in 5.1.

Album pictures? Hardly compelling. Song titles? This information could be delivered using subchannels on existing FM stations, the same way TMC (Traffic Message Channel) delivers live traffic information to your GPS.

Here's the biggest problem: nearly every car, household and office in the world has an AM/FM radio. They're on bedside tables, in garages, in thousand-dollar home theatre systems, in MP3 players, mobile phones, and everywhere else in between.

To have even a distant chance of working, digital radio would have to convince people to replace this gear with digital-capable devices.

Car owners are a natural target — and, like XM and Sirius have done, CRA is trying to convince car makers to include digital radio-capable kit in their cars. Car makers think long-term, however, and by the time your average car has digital radio — easily five years down the track — two other forces will already have hammered the final nails in digital radio's coffin.

One is Internet radio, which is already widespread and available in consumer electronics components that let you tune in radio stations from Melbourne to Moscow, from Saskatchewan to Swaziland. These stations are usually rebroadcast in mono or at low bit rates to cut bandwidth costs — but they don't have to be. (Local firm Torian Wireless deserves special mention here for iRoamer, a universal Internet radio platform that will be licensed to third-party electronics makers from next month.)

The second nail will be 3G mobile phones, which will increasingly be used to free Internet radio from the desktop PC. This is already happening: applications like FlyTunes and iRadio already let iPhone users stream radio stations. Plug your iPhone 3G into your car radio, and — voilà — you've got almost any radio station in the world, wherever you go.

Even the satellite providers smell inevitability in the air: XM streams 25 stations straight to US mobiles with its XM Radio Mobile service. And for US$12.99 a month, Sirius offers 64 streaming radio channels through its Sirius Internet Radio service.

It's a breeze to port this stuff to the iPhone; build it into phones from Nokia or Samsung or whoever; or offer it through existing mobile content portals. Sure, many existing and coming mobiles can access Internet radio, but bandwidth consumption will make it too pricey unless the carriers offer unmetered access to certain radio stations — and that requires a partnership between telcos and radio broadcasters.

Stations like Austereo currently stream online, but sharing revenues from a subscription service would be a nice little money-spinner. And while CRA is still flying the flag for digital radio, the services will flop — not because they are bad, but because streaming mobile Internet radio offers ease of access, lower cost, and a far larger selection of content.

If CRA wants to be involved in the next generation of radio, it should forget about talking spectrum with ACMA, and instead start cold-calling Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and 3 to discuss their mutual interests. There's no point waiting for tomorrow; when it comes to Internet radio, tomorrow is already here.

Am I being too harsh? Do you see a future for digital radio? Would you buy it? Is it worth further consideration by the government? Or should that spectrum be used for more relevant services?

Topics: Browser, Broadband

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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20 comments
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  • Digital Radio

    I think digital radio is going to happen whether we like it or not

    Dean
    Find your next job fast at Jobspeed.com.au
    anonymous
  • Digital radio

    The author is absolutely right - the time for digital radio has already come and gone. I have been listening to Internet radio stations on my Nokia N95 phone for nearly a year now through the Hutchison 3 network (with bluetooth headphones). It is fantastic to have such an amazing choice of stations from all over the world available to listen to in the car or on foot anywhere in the metro area. Typical broadcasts are at 128kb/sec which equates to about 50MB an hour which on my 2GB/$40/month plan equates to about 40 hours a month which in turn equates to $1/hour. It is however well worth it, even just to escape the ads and hear the type of music that I like (trance). No doubt the price will drop further.

    Long live mobile Internet radio!
    anonymous
  • stereo am?

    I agree with this article. I think that AM Stereo, ahem, Digital Radio will not really take off. It doesn't stand a chance.

    Although, a better name might be "ACMA killed the radio star." Yet another thing ACMA has stuffed up - great job!
    anonymous
  • internet radio

    Absolutely 110% spot on. The mobile phone is already morphing into what might be called the Portable Personal Device. It's only a matter of time before it is also the universal remote for all your household appliances, your credit card, and maybe even an electic toothbrush. OK, maybe not the toothbrush, but everything else. As for the car radio, ditto.
    anonymous
  • Digital Radio

    ABC Did Radio/Jazz is superb.
    anonymous
  • Pandora on mobile would be divine

    It's just too fantastic. Need to be in the US or find a work around to hear it
    anonymous
  • Digital Radio

    The question for radio is not whether the future will be digital. The present already is. Nor is it, apocalyptically, whether radio will survive. I think it will probably thrive, though as always, it will change. The question is a pretty mundane one: how much will a particular kind of digital radio future cost and will listeners who already inhabit a digital audio world think the benefits are worth it?

    I agree that the danger for radio is audiences judging the digital services it launches next year not excitedly, against the standards of the supposedly old AM and FM services they are meant to enhance, but, quizzically, against the standards already established by online and portable digital audio.

    ‘Has radio blown the future?’: http://www.creative.org.au/webboard/results.chtml?filename_num=197093
    anonymous
  • Digital radio - future or flop?

    Digital radio will be around in the future - the industry has invested too much capital into it to make it otherwise.

    What will likely happen is the industry will simply simulcast the same shows via AM/FM and Digital channels (it will become cost prohibitive to program new content for digital-only channels if audiences do not migrate fast enough).

    The industry will ask the govt to mandate a date (5-10yrs off) at which point AM/FM will be switched off, and you will require a digital receiver to pick up radio broadcasts. (Which is exactly what the telco industry did to force consumers from analogue to GSM phones).

    By then, cars will have a device capable of picking up digital signals, and all consumer radio products will be digital broadcast compatible. In the intervening period, there will be analogue-digital hybrids that will work in both worlds.

    Is this the optimum solution? Not at all - the industry shot itself in the foot by taking so long to gain a consensus position on digital radio, and has now been overtaken by more powerful and feature-rich platforms. Worse, an emerging generation of consumers simply have not developed a 'radio habit' (perhaps a bigger challenge for the industry).

    Will broadcast radio disappear? Not any time soon. Free is free, and it is hard to beat. Eventually device manufacturers will add digital receivers to their devices - but they won't be limited to digital radio. The same devices will likely pluck other broadcast + IP content for playback, which will make for a much more competitive environment in which radio will need to carve a niche.
    anonymous
  • Internet Radio

    I agree with the article wholeheartedly, I've been listening to live streamed internet radio for nearly 10 years on my PC. I currently listen about 6 hours a day. I'm just waiting now for a cheap enough data plan to be able to make it mobile. I like the sound of the iPhone 3G and iRadio! Bring it on, forget HD radio, give us the net cheap.
    anonymous
  • Swaziland

    I don't give a crap about whether digital radio will take off. I just want to a link for the Swaziland internet radio you mention! (Which probably doesn't exist - more's the pity.)
    anonymous
  • Pushing the poor aside

    I would like to see Digital Radio work in conjunction with satellite/internet technologies, why can't we have devices to pick up the lot?

    Digital Radio is important because it is free for the consumer - If we lose free broadcasting, we cut the poor out of media consumption. How can someone struggling financially justify having to pay for access to the media?

    And specifically, AUSTRALIAN media - If we become so reliant on overseas media sources, we risk losing our Australian culture by the day.

    There's nothing wrong with extra choice, but can we please have more AUSTRALIAN choice?

    I believe Digital Radio is important for giving free access to those who can't afford to pay for their access to media - Digital radio extends choices for them and we need to embrace Australian content or face becoming America v.2.0
    anonymous
  • Completely agree

    Hey I completely agree with scrapping digital radio for internet. I just want my car set up so it can receive it cos I can't stand what we have on offer.

    While I'm at it, can I please back up all my itunes to a virtual store so that all I have to access my music is enter my password on any device. Car, phone, computer, tv...

    That would be nice.
    Dave Anderson
    www.daveandersononline.com
    anonymous
  • Internet Radio (MiRoamer)

    I Read this article and checked why Torian Wireless gets a special mention and WOW!!! They have created an Internet Radio Portal (Miroamer.com) that gives you access to thousands of stations. You can search through Genre, Country etc.. Miroamer is the aggregator of agregators. You cant even compare digital to that. Cant wait till the products hit the market, and its for FREE...
    anonymous
  • internet radio (miroamer)

    digi is dead and internet radio will overtake sat,
    especially with the the growth of wifi/wimax.
    ever thought about the cost of running/renting a satelite?
    anonymous
  • Radio should be cheap

    I think part of the appeal of radio is that it's cheap and accessible. The cheapest radios are only a few dollars, and most cars come standard with radios. Of course, nowadays you can even use the internet to tune into stations. At this stage, most everybody has some sort of device that can receive AM and/or FM radio. Also the advantage of radio over TV is that it can be utilised whilst doing something else, whereas television usually requires your full attention. Changing to digital will mean that radio will lose these advantages, that is, it will no longer be cheap and accessible, as thousands of FM or AM receiving devices will be rendered useless, and people will have to fork out more money in order to listen to radio again. And the advantages digital radio offers aren't worth it. Most people don't worry about the audio quality of their radio, especially if they're doing something else at the same time. And if they are looking for good quality, they'll go to vinyl or at least CDs.
    Changing to digital means that radio will lose its appeal rather than improve it.
    anonymous
  • Digital Radio

    Digital Radio at $10 a month is a dead duck. No-one will pay to hear the crud that goes out these days.

    There used to be the argument that charging for broadcasting raised money to produce better material but that has been gashed because the money goes in advance to the Govt as broadcasters have to bid each other to the roof to get a licence in the first place.

    Radio will die because no-one in radio today realises that their competition isn't Digital Terrestrial or Satelite radio - IT IS THE I-POD!

    Listeners are forsaking MIX, SEA et al for intelligent radio from thousands of sources accessible globally via their PC. Listener choice has overtaken Media Mogul determination of what we will all hear from Pop-Star #X, via label Y.

    The only way anyone is going to grab listeners back from the brink is to get back to making Radio that is intelligent, informative and personal. This means local content, locally produced and FREE.

    There you are folks, there is the challenge, GO FOR IT.
    anonymous
  • DAB by force

    We must resist being conned into DAB. The coverage is pathetic and the delivered material is not worh the change over. At least when FM was introduced we did not lose AM, but now we are faced with losing a good quality system for one that is over-hyped and dishonestly advertised (marvellous sound quality from a 3-inch loudspeaker?).
    anonymous
  • NO DAB by Force

    Sorry not true, AM and FM is here to stay, of course you can never say never, but current policy is for all three systems to broadcast side by side, new DAB players are allowed in after 6 years from the last FM Licence sale
    anonymous
  • Digital Radio

    i for one have been keenly awaiting digital radio. I'd be happy just to receive a clear, non static ridden, signal in my car, of the existing stations. ABC Classic FM can be infuriating with its at times crackling signal.
    The ability to hear Radio National in Stereo as oposed to AM would also be wonderful.
    I do have concerns however for the unfunded community stations, 3RRR, 3PBS and would hope they can broadcast digitally also.
    I still have hopes for digital radio, although this part of the article caused me some concern : "Our [coverage] predictions weren't accurate enough, and a driving tour [of Sydney's suburbs] shows a significant dip as you head behind buildings," Warner conceded....

    In any case it seem that digital radio is inevitable, i hope it doesnt dissapoint.
    anonymous
  • digi

    Digital sounds amazing.
    Internet radio sucks.
    The quality is crap, sounds like AM radio from the 60's.
    Sure theres a lot of stations in 50 different languages. Sounds like short wave radio. Digital Radio or HD as they call it in the states will be here for a long time because of investment. There needs to be an AM/FM switch off date like analogue TV. Cant wait to hear all the new LOCAL stations on offer.
    anonymous