There is an issue brewing in the radio industry and it revolves around nothing less than freedom, technology and the future of the medium.
Terrestrial radio has always been free for consumers. But with today’s modern technology, it is now possible for consumers to receive higher-quality content targeted to their interests. Is providing these options to consumers the way to go, or should terrestrial radio continue as it is today?
In his statement accompanying the March vote on IBOC rules, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps expresses dissent-in-part to HD Radio subscription services and raises issues about localism and diversity. There are others who believe conditional access is a back door to introducing subscription-based pay radio.
Conditional Access (CA) provides authorization or entitlement to individually addressable radios. On some systems, CA supports both paid-for subscription and free, opt-in services but it is also a proven method of producing high-value and high-quality content.
How do we explain the dichotomy of maintaining free radio yet enabling CA over this free medium?
The answer is that most digital terrestrial HD Radio broadcasts will still be free. The HD Radio CA solution creates additional opportunities for enhanced free digital terrestrial radio. In so doing, HD Radio signals still will not compete with subscription-based satellite audio services.
Conditionally accessed services provide public good offerings, promote community-building activities that incorporate localism and diversity, enforce general public protection while providing free speech, and supply creative entertainment and information opportunities.
In order to receive a free conditionally accessed service, consumers will only need to sign up for the broadcast and, in some cases, meet certain qualifications. The free service may be underwritten by advertiser support. Certain qualifications might mean that a listener receiving reading services for the blind is legally sight-impaired, or it might mean that the listener understands the nature of and can legally agree to receive the broadcasts.
Public “good” or service channels are available free of charge to a constituency but may not be available to the overall public.
For example, the International Association of Audio Information Services Radio Reading Service volunteers read books, newspapers and magazines for the legally blind. These publications hold a copyright, therefore reading them cannot be offered free to the general public.
With the new CA-protected transmission, a sight-impaired person can use an off-the-shelf, CA-equipped HD Radio to hear excellent-quality audio reading service. Additionally, listeners can receive other broadcast stations when they are not listening to the reading service.
The station or the reading service can individually address and turn on the programming while accounting for each listener and their receiver. The present reading service radios use an SCA channel and supply dreadful audio quality. Receivers can also be lost, broken or sold in garage sales, which adds to the difficulty of tracking the units.
Radio broadcasting has excellent statistical reliability during emergencies. Emergency providers, such as police, fire and paramedics, could use a one-way channel for service coordination during a crisis.
This public “good” broadcast would be available to the qualified emergency workers only; the police/fire/paramedics or the station would entitle off-the-shelf HD Radio receivers. When not in a crisis mode, these organizations might use such a channel for training and practice.
Public good service providers can help obtain broadcast and reception equipment through public funds, grants and donations. Their programming channels should consume a minimal amount of broadcast bit space. This means the subsidized equipment comes at the inexpensive cost of a narrow broadcast pipe.
An opt-in service is one where the general consumer chooses to receive a free-of-charge scrambled broadcast via HD Radio signals. The listener signs up and provides certain required information, including the radio serialization number.
The broadcaster confirms that the listener is qualified and may additionally obtain important consumer and demographic data. Advertisers will focus their promotions using the conglomerate listener information. The consumer and demographic information can be the basis for future ad substitution.
Some say that the Internet has become the place of discovery. The Internet, however, is more like an encyclopedia or a dictionary; it is great if you already know what you are looking for.
True discovery comes when you are presented something that you did not already know. This may be happening on MySpace, but it is happening merely one friend at a time. Radio is a broadcast media, reaching many with one, single transmission.
The consumer can rightfully expect something that imparts discovery, something that is stellar or compelling, on an opt-in channel. Things that are individually important captivate people.
Many things that are captivating are local. Localism is the strength of terrestrial digital broadcasting. Such opt-in broadcasting will build community, like MySpace, but in a broadcast radio environment.
Each local community is unique. This offering is an opportunity for creativity, opportunity and diversity that provides for the local community and a profitable niche broadcast marketplace.
Sometimes opt-in programming will mean that the boundaries will stretch or some programming may be outrageous. While we have no ruling about whether such broadcasts might be acceptable, please note that the broadcaster, through CA, generates a lock on the channel.
Only those that want the programming and meet the qualifications, like being 21 years old or older, will receive it. Those that do not wish this entertainment will not hear this channel.
When do we begin?
NDS RadioGuard HD Radio Conditional Access broadcast equipment will be available soon from your favorite suppliers. Radio descrambler and security ICs will ship to receiver and module manufacturers in the beginning of September. The first HD Radios that receive conditionally accessed services can be in stores for the holidays.
It takes a small amount of time to proliferate through the delivery chain. However, radios will go to the markets that broadcast first. It takes time to convince radio makers to create their offering, but, just as in all other transmit-and-receive circumstances, the broadcaster’s actions convince the consumer electronic manufacturers.
Recent product announcements are evidence to this success. Very soon, it will be difficult to find a radio that does not receive HD Radio broadcasts. Shortly, all radio decoder ICs will have HD Radio conditional access reception built-in.
The public interest
Will there be subscriptions? Yes, but they will most likely be data subscriptions, like navigation and traffic information or up-to-the-second stock quotations.
Will there be pay audio services? Yes, but these will be pay-per-listen, high-value, one-time events rather than ongoing audio subscriptions.
Are these choices within the public’s best interest? Prominent people are asking this question. Services that provide consumer choice and simultaneously enhance the financial strength of our broadcasters tend to be in the best public interest. The vast majority of this new programming will be free to its listeners.
By nature of this technology and its deployment, HD Radio with NDS RadioGuard Conditional Access will protect the consuming public, stimulate new creativity and new programs, promote localism, enhance opportunity and diversity, and most of it will free. Aren’t these choices squarely in the public’s best interest?