In Latin America, the Future of Digital Radio Is a Murky One


The online version of this article has been updated to reflect the most recent IBOC developments in Mexico.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — More than 20 years after the emergence of digital radio, its fate in Latin America remains uncertain. Most countries of this region have not demonstrated a preference as to which system to adopt. At the same time, digital’s progress in some countries has been slow, though technology studies and trial broadcasts have been going on since the mid-1990s.

“The discussion on digital radio is spreading throughout Latin American countries, but the obstacle blocking the implementation and subsequent transition to this technology continues to be more economical than technological,” said Pedro González Castellanos, a research engineer for the National Institute of Metrology, Normalization and Industrial Quality (INMETRO) of Brazil.

Undecided

However, regional decision-making about radio digitalization remains limited. The leading countries in Latin America have still not chosen systems or set dates for doing so.

An exception is Mexico — the second-largest economy in the region and 11th largest in the world — which allows use of AM and FM HD Radio within about 200 miles of its northern border. The Mexican government is now considering extending optional commercial radio use of HD Radio to the entire country; some broadcasters support the move while various academic, social and community sectors are critical.

At the end of February, after the preparation of the print version of this article, Mexico’s telecom regulator gave its thumbs up to HD Radio and IBOC for the entire country, and laid out a proposed plan for a voluntary transition to that technology. The recommendation goes on to a regulatory agency that will hold a public comment period. Advocates hope this will be a precedent-setting decision.


The Mexico decision had been expected. Meanwhile, commenting before that development, broadcasters and the governments in Brazil and Argentina remained hopeful of making a decision someday. But those countries have seen different degrees of activity.

In Brazil, as Radio World has reported, a work group coordinated by the Ministry of Communications has been carrying out field research in various cities on the iBiquity Digital HD Radio and Digital Radio Mondiale systems. The tests are for both AM and FM. HD Radio tests started in 2005; DRM tests began in 2007.

This commission, composed of researchers from the National Telecommunications Agency and INMETRO, is working on the final draft of a report; there is no set date for its presentation. Brazil will be watched closely because it is the world’s seventh-largest economy in terms of GDP, and the second-largest in the Americas behind the United States.

In Argentina, AM HD Radio tests sponsored by the Association of Private Argentine Broadcasters, ARPA, were carried out with HD Radio in 2004. But the government currently does not include radio digitalization among its priorities; it is focused on its TV digital transition. The International Telecommunications Union is encouraging all nations to complete their migration to digital television by year-end 2015.

One source said another complicating factor is the presence of thousands of unlicensed broadcasters operating on uncoordinated frequencies in Argentina; it would be difficult to make any in-band digital radio technology work reliably on the existing AM and FM bands.

Luis Lázzaro, general coordinator for the country’s Federal Authority of Audiovisual Communication Services, said, “Unfortunately, current conditions do not favor more rapid advances; but we are very aware of all scientific research and techniques taking place at the national universities and being carried out in the MERCOSUR,” which is the Southern Common Market, a trade and political pact among Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Standardization

Most countries in Latin America use the AM and FM bands and modulation schemes found in the United States, though channel separations differ by country. It’s difficult to state a precise total number of radio stations for the region.

Elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, Panama, Jamaica and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have opted to use HD Radio as a digital radio technology. Among other countries, the Dominican Republic is trialing HD Radio. Several other nations are analyzing the situation or plan to begin such a process. The rest have done little to nothing with digital radio, with the exception of Mexico noted above.

Some observers feel broad standardization is desirable.

“It is very important for the entire region to adopt the same system, primarily to generate the possibility of producing equipment on a regional level in order to keep costs down,” said Luis Pardo Sainz, president of the Association of Radio Broadcasters of Chile, which is authorized by that government to experiment with HD Radio in 2011.

In Peru, while acknowledging that experimentation with digital radio has not yet been carried out, Alexander Chiu Werner, who is responsible for communications and imagery for the Advisory Council on Radio and Television (CONCORTV), agreed with Pardo.

“Strategic decisions on the future of information and communication technologies in our countries must be developed and agreed upon within existing regional transnational pacts — CAN, MERCOSUR, UNASUR — in order to promote the integration and facilitate the creation of a common market,” he said. CAN consists of countries that border the Andes mountains; UNASUR is the Union of South American Nations.

Nonetheless, few ideas have advanced beyond noble aspirations.

“Some joint projects have been carried out, for example with AMARC [the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters] but they have not had the desired success,” said Patricia Maldonado, professor and researcher with the Professional Interdisciplinary Unit in Engineering and Advanced Technologies at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico.

Diverse reasons

Economic and technical considerations are behind many of the doubts about digital radio in Latin America.

The cost to transition and the limited possibilities for broadcasters to share transmission equipment and expenses — a benefit afforded by the European Eureka-147 DAB and Japanese ISDB-Tsb systems, for example — give pause to smaller community and alternative broadcasters. Those considerations also oblige governments to use caution in order to avoid inequalities regarding access to new technologies.

Additional factors are the cost of receivers and the more limited buying power of Latin American audiences.

“If digital radio has not found a market in the United States, with a population of 300 million, then what chance do we have in Argentina with a population of only 40 million?” wondered Juan Fernández, director of Radio Mi País, an AM station on 1170 kHz.

“Even in developed countries, the adoption of digital format by listeners has been slow,” added Pardo. He considers HD Radio the best option because stations can use existing AM and FM bands to implement digital technology.

On the technical side, sentiment generally seems to favor an in-band approach that would allow a gradual shift, as well as an open-standards approach to encourage broader participation in future development.

For their part, Argentine engineers Norberto Solís and Jorge Bergalli of the ARPA Technical Committee feel that any digital system should include free service to the consumer.

Meanwhile, community broadcast organizations have another perspective. For them, the technical choice of system and the levels of necessary investment are secondary considerations to another aspect of going digital: the opportunity to bring greater diversity of voices to the spectrum.

“The technologies are not so pivotal but rather the social implications within the general framework of communication rights,” Pablo Vannini stated in an article. He is a member of the research group for the program Ritmo Sur, a joint initiative of AMARC and the Association of Latin American Radiophonic Education.

Latin American interest

Consequently, Latin American interest seems to be focused on two systems, HD Radio and Digital Radio Mondiale, which meet several of the goals of the various interest groups.

“Steps being taken in Mexico — such as enabling certain AM stations to offer their content on FM — are precisely intended for a future in which there will be more possibilities to adopt the U.S. system without having to modify the current radiophonic structure” and, likewise, its participants, said Maldonado.

For his part, Solís did not deny the possible implementation of a Brazilian project that emerged from the communications subgroup of the MERCOSUR. According to Solís, the idea presented by the Brazilian authorities implies establishing “a common system of digital radio,” based on either HD Radio or ISDB-Tsb, if this fulfills the necessary technical requirements.

ISDB-Tsb is part of the Japanese ISDB-T terrestrial digital broadcasting system and supports audio broadcasts using encoded transmission of OFDM signals. In Japan, ISDB-Tsb is used for digital radio, ISDB-T for television services. For digital television in South America, most nations have adopted ISDB-Tb, a variant of ISDB-T developed originally for Brazil.

An additional question for Brazil is the digitization of tropical band shortwave stations, which are used to cover the vast Amazon basin.

Rule changes

Asked which countries have adopted digital radio or appear to show the best chance of adoption, iBiquity Digital Director of Business Development for Latin America John Schneider said Brazil has about 30 stations equipped for experimental HD Radio broadcasting.

Schneider agreed that governments of several Latin American countries are in the early stages of exploring the digital radio question and have not shown a preference for any one system.

“Nonetheless it’s important to note that no digital radio technology other than the HD Radio system has ever been authorized in Latin America other than a few isolated tests,” he said. “Once the larger countries adopt and begin to implement the technology and receiver products begin appearing in those countries, it is likely that other countries will quickly follow the choices of the large countries.”

The DRM Consortium did not respond to a similar query.

Outside of the U.S., HD Radio developer iBiquity does not charge license fees directly to broadcasters; international fees are included in the equipment costs, according to the company. Continental Lensa in Santiago, Chile, is the only licensed HD Radio transmitter manufacturer in Latin America.

The DRM Consortium also does not charge license fees directly to broadcasters; instead the fee is charged to the equipment manufacturer and figured in the price of a DRM transmitter, exciter, content server or other equipment. DRM does not list any Latin American transmitter manufacturers on its website.

Discussing digital radio, many observers also talk about the need to reform or revise various regulations in their countries to make space for digital radio.

“It is not absolutely essential, nonetheless some adjustments are necessary because of the new services that will emerge, such as multiprogramming,” González said.

Meanwhile, analog radio in Latin American remains. “Obviously we want to modernize and advance, but that does not mean that whatever is not digital is useless,” Pardo said. “Digitalization will not take over by decree.”

Jorge J. Basilago is a photojournalist and freelance writer who covers media and cultural events from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He may be reached by e-mail to jbasilago@hotmail.com.

Radio World Latin America Editor in Chief Rogelio Ocampo and Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson contributed to this article.




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