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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Digital Radio Update

Let's take a look at the current state of the digital radio conversion process in a few selected countries around the world.

THE UNITED STATES


Almost a year has passed since I reported on The IBOC MESS In North America. Since then, hybrid-digital IBOC conversions (HD Radio) on the US mediumwave AM broadcast band have come to a near dead stop. There seems to be little excitement for new stations to jump on the Ibiquity AM bandwagon, what with a scattered amount of dedicated equipment available and marginal listener interest, not withstanding the large cash outlay stations need to get signed up and converted. Available receiving equipment seems to be a few clock radios, some home sound system type tuners, and car radios (which seem to be coming on strong). Portables have largely been ignored. Sangean had plans to make an intriguing little AM/FM model, the DT-600HD, however the AM band on this unit was to be traditionally analog. They dropped the product before it got to the marketplace.

Last year at August 27, 2009, we had 289 licensed IBOC AM outlets, per FCC files. As of this writing we have 293, and two of them are silent. This is a net gain of only four new registrations in the last 11 months. In the past year there have been reports of several stations switching off their digital signal due either to problems, interference complaints, or lack of interest, so the actual count of stations currently transmitting IBOC is almost certainly under 290. Using the figure 293 against the total number of licensed AM broadcast stations in the US (4786), the AM IBOC factor is 6.1%. At this rate, AM IBOC cannot sustain itself.


Then, there is the adjacent channel interference problem, particularly bad at night, which many still complain about. And rightfully so. Nightly, digital broadband hash continues here in the northeast and other parts of the country on the mediumwave band. Earlier this year, one evening after dark I was driving through Phoenix, Arizona trying to listen to local AM station KMVP (itself an IBOC station) on 860 KHz. It transmits at 1KW. Every time adjacent channel KOA-850 (another IBOC, at 50KW) out of Denver, Colorado peaked, KMVP was not receivable due to the digital hash. It was maddening.

Earlier this year, Ibiquity announced  2010 fire sale pricing (good through December 31) for new stations wishing to join the digital "revolution", with the stipulation that they be "stations eligible for discount pricing", whatever that means. The existing $25,000 main channel licensing fee was reduced to a remarkable figure of $10,500 if payment is made up front. Monthly payment plans (at an overall higher total figure) for those stations less able to scare up this kind of money all at once were also instituted. It seems that the original higher flow of incoming cash might be slowing down. Ibiquity claims that one new digital station goes on the air on the average of every four days. I guess this must mean FM, as the AM figures don't support this claim. It will be interesting to see if the fire sale continues into next year.

So what is the current market share for HD Radio in the US? A 7 month old Bridge Report hinted at it.

12/15/2009 Bridge Ratings: New Media's Effect On Radio Lessening

"HD Radio, though it reaches only about 650,000 people, is attracting 'considerable listening time' of about 11.5 hours a week", though Bridge says "that's down from previous surveys, attributing the change to a larger number of HD receiver owners, diluting the impact of the heavy users."

"Respondents were also asked what audio devices they use every day, with a choice of AM/FM radio, HD Radio, cellphone, satellite radio, and Internet radio. Nearly 90 percent of radio listeners also use a cellphone every day, while more than 44 percent use an MP3 player. About 35 percent listen to Internet radio every day, with satellite radio and HD Radio well behind."

6/30/2010 Bridge Ratings: Is Terrestrial Radio Ready for a Digital Future?

Things are not moving along very quickly. Back to mediumwave, we can only hope that Ibiquity eventually gives up on the mediumwave band, or the government does, or both, and they take the AM patient off of life-support.

Beyond our borders, several other countries have issued mandates to go digital for some or all of their radio broadcasting services. Let's examine some of their stories.

MEXICO


4/14/2010 Mexico Is Set to Elect IBOC

Information out of Mexico is paltry, and I have seen nothing new since April. It would seem that this is a done deal, with Mexico on the verge of adopting IBOC as their standard. Back in May 2008, a 200 mile wide border zone was established along the US - Mexican border allowing Mexican AM and FM stations to use the IBOC format to "take decisive action so that the country’s AM and FM radio stations in the zone located within 320 km of the northern border of Mexico can transmit at the same technological level so that they can provide the benefits of quality service to the radio listening public."

Supposedly, there are two, or six, or nine IBOC outlets, depending on what you read, and at least two more deeper down in Mexico itself in or around Mexico City (XHDL and XEDA). The two call signs I have seen reported along the US border are AM outlet XEEZ 970 Radio Palacios from Caborca, Sonora, and the other, an FM outlet, XHTY-FM 94.5 in Tijuana. The station news is all old news anyway and reported a long time ago, way back in June 2008. I have heard no other IBOC-rollout fanfare since then.

Suddenly in early 2009 Mexico announced that it intended to convert all AM radio station outlets to FM, country-wide, a wholesale disbanding the AM service. They even published a schedule of the conversion dates, to take place between August of 2009 and August of 2010 (see page 8).

Whether this eventually happens or not is anyone's guess, but you can bet on it not happening by next month. Local reports out of Mexico indicate that some regional areas have abandoned the AM mode, particularly in the southeast. The government's general idea, I think, was to force the big city AM outlets to convert to FM (and in the future, IBOC), and let the rural outlets languish and eventually disappear. However there was no lack of border blasters in southwestern Arizona, where I spent last winter. The Nogales to Tijuana border strip has a sizable number of AM outlets, but none running IBOC as far as I can remember hearing. Assuming I get to Arizona again this winter, I will pay more careful attention to what is coming out of Mexico. Needless to say, the AM to FM conversion in Mexico is coming along slowly. And IBOC even slower. So where does this leave Mexican AM IBOC?

Curiously, Mexico's announcement of being on the brink of voting to adopt the IBOC methodology is some months old now, with no action since. It seems they can't pull the trigger. Maybe they realize that it's just a whole lot of money and effort for no good end, at least on the AM side. Or maybe they are dragging their feet waiting to see what happens with IBOC in this country. IBOC may be on life-support for the mediumwave band in the US, but FM has greater presence. As of this writing, 1569 stations (8 not on the air) are shown with IBOC permits in the FM service. This is compared to a total of 9608 full-fledged FM stations on the air, commercial and non-commercial, 130 of them showing silent at the moment. Using the figure 1569 against the total number of licensed FM broadcast stations (9608), the FM IBOC factor is 16.3%. Still not a great showing. However, listenership seems to be coming around.

May 2010 FM HD Radio is Becoming a Fact of Life for American Radio (be careful with this news, it is an Ibiquity article)

CANADA


Canada (having wanted to go with the DAB standard) seems to be stalled on the whole digital radio broadcasting question, according to a recent article this month in Radio Magazine Online. The article reports that "government observers agree that the service has reached the end of the line....with DAB's imminent demise, increased demand for analog FM frequencies is taking place in Canada's urban areas."

IBOC, where for art thou?


"While posts in online Canadian radio forums suggest a preference for HD Radio among hobbyists, government regulators and industry representatives still treat the the option with caution. Canada's Communications Research Centre, a governmental research body with an advisory role on telecom policy, has developed its own coverage analysis tool dubbed COVLAB to evaluate digital radio coverage and spectral compatibility, rather than simply deferring to U.S. data. IBOC digital radio testing has been conducted in Canada since 2006, and the Canadian government has said that it will accept experimental HD Radio digital hybrid applications from licensed FM stations, though few stations have stepped up to do so."

"So industry opinion on IBOC's potential in Canada is checkered at best. With many stations moving away from AM altogether, and interference concerns among those who remain, AM HD Radio is probably a nonstarter."

Exactly what I've been talking about. Canadian reader Greg writes:

"DAB failed in Canada because there was almost no public awareness of it and virtually no receivers on the market that could receive it. I never saw anyone selling or even advertising DAB receivers, and never even heard any mention of the service anywhere except on radio hobbyist sites and mailing lists. Canada's DAB system was a bit different than that adopted in the U.K., operating on a different frequency band. I wonder if it would have been more successful had we adopted the British standard, which would have enabled us to use receivers designed for the U.K.?"

7/7/2010 Canada DAB Shut Down

Outside of North America, at least four more countries are either entertaining or have adopted Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) or Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) schemes. Europe and many parts of Asia have gone or are going with the DAB or DRM schemes.

Also see:

Digital Radio Mondiale Home Page
Country Information for DAB, DAB+ and DMB

BRITAIN


Britain is an interesting story, in and of itself. The government is going gangbusters for DAB "Digital Britain" via the Digital Economy Act, and pushing it as hard as they can. However, the public and the pundits are panning it for now as "not ready", if ever. The government stipulates that the 2015 switchover "will go ahead only if 50 per cent of radio listening is via 'digital platforms' by 2013." Many say that will never happen by that soon a date, and that the switchover should be delayed for a period of ten years or more. At the forefront is the BBC. The BBC's digital radio stations now cover 86 per cent of the country (signal pattern coverage). The corporation has built 50 transmitters in the last year and plans 60 more in the next year to increase coverage to 90 per cent. Of course, nationwide, the thrust is mostly FM.

Whether their switchover happens by 2015 is the guess of the decade. Figures published showed that the audience share for digital radio in Britain – including listeners on digital TV and the internet – is rising at a record rate, up to 24 per cent from 20.9 per cent in the previous quarter (first quarter, 2010).

We shall see, if we all live long enough. No IBOC for Britain.

There is lots of interesting digital conversion news out of Britain:

7/22/2010 More On The Digital Economy Act

7/8/2010 Digital Radio Speech by the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey

7/8/2010 Relax. Digital radio switchover will now never happen

5/23/2010 Digital radio switchover gets poor reception

4/8/2010 Say goodbye to your transistor radio, digital switchover is coming

9/9/2009 Britain Mulls Over Digital Radio Transition

6/16/2009 Digital Britain: Analogue radio switch-off set for 2015

INDIA


India is going with DRM, and All India Radio has just ordered a fair amount of equipment. All India Radio is also big into shortwave, much of it used for national regional service. On mediumwave, transmitters there tend to be big boys - 100KW, 200KW, and 300KW to extend the coverage area. On the books are 34 new MW transmitters, upgrades to 36 existing MW transmitters and the purchase of 5 SW transmitters and other associated equipment. Interesting, I see no mention of FM in here.

7/1/2010 All India Radio tender notice for DRM digital transmitters

4/10/2010 Indian government approves country’s digitalisation plan using DRM

AUSTRALIA


Australia has gone with the DAB+ method, a variation of DAB. All commercial and public service broadcasters are now broadcasting digital radio in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. Australian commercial digital radio services switched-on progressively in May and June 2009 in the five state capital metropolitian areas. The public service broadcasters switched on 1 July 2009. A recent report revealed, "....the industry recently released figures indicating there were already nearly 500,000 people listening to digital radio across those markets."

"There are no plans at this stage to switch off AM and FM radio services", the report said. It continued on, "As there is an estimated five radio devices per home, listeners must be given time to change over all of their radios before any discussion of the switch off of analogue services. In addition, planning needs to continue for the switch on of digital services to the rest of Australia outside of the five metropolitan capital cities."

"It is expected that it will be some years before digital radio is extended to the bulk of the Australian continent. Australia's vast distances and low population density are not well suited to the propagation characteristics of DAB+ and it is therefore likely that a standard other than DAB+ will be adopted for serving areas outside the major cities."

At the moment, it looks like IBOC has lost out here. Australia may use DRM to fill in the nether regions if DAB+ doesn't work out.

Digital Radio In Australia (Wiki)

Digital Radio FAQs For Australia

7/19/2010 ABC Radio Is Now Digital (including AM outlets)

5/5/2010 Digital radio trial to begin in Canberra

8/13/2009 Rollout Of Digital Radio In Australia (announced in 2007)

BRAZIL


Brazil is huge. Ibiquity has done IBOC testing here, and the HD Radio system has been used on a trial basis by a number of commercial broadcasters since 2005. Brazil is the second-largest radio country in the world in terms of station count, behind the United States. Brazil has more than 3,000 commercial stations and about an equal number of low-power community radio stations. This would be huge profit for Ibiquity.

"Brazil's target date for full roll-out of an IBOC approach to digital radio is the year 2016. The Congress of the Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters is expected to make a standards announcement by the end of this year or in early 2011. However, there is also interest in Digital Radio Mondiale's DRM30 and DRM+ technologies. The possibility exists that the country will adopt different standards for AM, FM and shortwave."


"While AM and tropical-band shortwave remain important in large swaths of Brazil, DRM may be better positioned than Ibiquity's HD Radio AM for these wavebands, according to anecdotal comments on Brazilian digital radio message boards, blogs and press accounts. Yet HD Radio has more receivers on the market than does DRM. If regulators opt for DRM on AM and for HD Radio on FM, there is a concern that the rollout could be delayed by the manufacturing time necessary to produce dual-standard receivers, according to these accounts. Ibiquity publicly has supported the use of DRM30 for shortwave services in Brazil. It also supports the concept of multi-system tuners capable of receiving both HD Radio on AM/FM and DRM on shortwave."

IBOC is at the doorstep here, but not through the door yet. Again, like Australia, the rural regions may need to adopt the DRM technique for the AM service. We will soon see what Brazil decides.

5/27/2010 Brazilian Broadcasters make public open letter in support of DRM

5/12/2010 Brazil Could Pick Digital Standard in 2010

IBOC INTERNATIONAL

According to the Ibiquity web site, there are a handful of other countries testing and evaluating IBOC digital radio as of this writing. They are: Argentina, Austria, Canada, Chile, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Phillippines, Poland, Switzerland, Thailand, and Ukraine.

Ibiquity International

4 comments:

gkinsman said...

Hi Bill,

I wish MW (AM) IBOC would just go away. Not only does it cause interference, but I can't use my selectable-sideband sync detectors when listening to an IBOC signal (on my Sat 800, Sony 2010 and Sony 7600GR). At least your E1 has DSB sync to get around this.

Regards,
Gary

Radio-Timetraveller said...

Hi Gary,

I have a feeling AM IBOC might go away in time, as it has stalled for the time being.

Yes, the E1 has a fabulous sync detector, and it really helps, even much more than using SSB. I find the audio recovery while in SSB to be very low on the E1. Sync is much better.

Bill

Greg said...

Interesting. Up here in Canada I wonder if the failure of DAB to take root will make broadcasters skeptical of trying any other digital standard?

DAB failed in Canada because there was almost no public awareness of it and virtually no receivers on the market that could receive it. I never saw anyone selling or even advertising DAB receivers, and never even heard any mention of the service anywhere except on radio hobbyist sites and mailing lists. Canada's DAB system was a bit different than that adopted in the U.K., operating on a different frequency band. I wonder if it would have been more successful had we adopted the British standard, which would have enabled us to use receivers designed for the U.K.?

Radio-Timetraveller said...

Hi Greg,

Yes, Canada is an interesting story. Makes me wonder where they will go next?

I didn't realize that about the different frequencies employed by the Canadian standard.

If you don't mind I'd like to add your comments about the failure to my article.

Bill