Interference of Things: A Sydney smart city story

A digital cacophony at traffic lights is enough to make Bluetooth audio worse than wired sound.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

A connected city or the ability to listen to music without interruption, make your choice.

There is little doubt that when given the right conditions and enough stored energy, Bluetooth headphones are leading the way for Joe Consumer to enjoy some tunes.

But if there is one thing that a city like Sydney excels in, it is in providing conditions that are far from ideal, and that means my recommended means for listening to audio around the central business district (CBD) involves wires.

This is based on wired headphones being free from the inference that can hit wireless communications, and while square waves are great when they work, when they are hit with inference, it becomes a jumping, crackling, and sizzling environment that makes one pine for the relatively graceful degradation of an analogue signal.

Take a stroll through Sydney with Bluetooth audio, and you'll soon learn to hate the main culprit for interference: The Sydney CBD Emergency Warning System. This collection of loud speakers and lesser-used text signage mounted on street poles is theoretically meant to inform the populace of upcoming threats and provide advice, but in practice, it is simply a loud sound that tells Sydneysiders to keep calm a couple of times a year during tests.

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Should the system ever need to be used for population control, it would probably have all the effectiveness of a substitute teacher attempting to control a rowdy classroom of children that have just learnt there's an explosive device under one of their chairs.

The result is that in day-to-day living, it simply serves to put out a radius of interference that is guaranteed to interrupt podcast playback precisely when complex concepts or explanations of historical turning points are encountered.

But as Sydney seeks to make up for lost time in infrastructure with construction sites popping up all over the CBD, and businesses hooking up all sorts of devices and things that operate in the same spectrum range, using Bluetooth means you've resigned yourself to a life of bashing the 10-second rewind button of the podcast player more often than seems reasonable.

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Meanwhile, reverting to a set of USB-C headphones included with the Pixel 3 has no such failing. They may not be as loud or clear, have no noise cancellation, and the wire is an annoying throwback, but no longer does the digital crackle reverberate in the ear canal at traffic lights, and the Google Assistant integration is actually the first genuinely useful instance of the disembodied voice reading notifications I've come across.

There is no holding back the future. Cities will continue to roll out smart things that operate in unlicensed spectrum, and the signals are going to layer and interfere with each other -- it's just a shame that as cities get smarter and embrace the Internet of Things, Bluetooth will become more annoying.

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Sydney's Bluetooth nemesis

(Image: Asha Barbaschow)


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.


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