Let's Break Down the Anti-HD Radio Arguments - Radio World

Let's Break Down the Anti-HD Radio Arguments

It continues to amaze me how many knowledgeable broadcast engineers and industry observers persist in calling HD Radio a flawed system not worthy of replacing analog and are forecasting its failure and demise.
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It continues to amaze me how many knowledgeable broadcast engineers and industry observers persist in calling HD Radio a flawed system not worthy of replacing analog and are forecasting its failure and demise. Online list servers seem to attract many of these unconverted.

Changing minds and opinions on this topic might be a little like trying to convince those opposed to the war in Iraq that U.S. presence there will further our objectives in defeating world terrorism. In the HD Radio proceeding, there also appear to be quite a few undecideds. Will Ibiquity's technology ultimately succeed? Somebody should run a poll to see how this stacks up. In both cases, the playing field is constantly changing.

STATUS QUO

Let's give the anti-HD Radio core positions a reality check one by one:

1. Analog still serves radio's needs very adequately. With new design techniques it can perform even better. Why obsolete hundreds of millions of existing receivers?

Lots of HD Radio naysayers tend to favor the status quo. Just because it's digital doesn't mean it's better, they say. Analog AM is still receivable on radios made over 80 years ago. Over 500 million of them still serve their owners well in this country alone. Making them unusable would be unthinkable. Yet the huge improvement of noise-free full-fidelity stereo that HD Radio brings to AM is blissfully ignored. This reminds us of all the horse-and-carriage fans of the 1890s. Proponents of the newly invented automobile back then had to prove their case.

The argument for FM HD Radio is a little less convincing. Analog FM with RBDS scrolling text on the plains of Kansas works fairly well. Think of it as a fast horse-drawn carriage on a really smooth road with a narrated travel guide.

But the ability to add features and enjoyment pretty much ends there. The riding experience, just like the listening experience for those in congested cities full of tall buildings or on very bumpy roads in hilly terrain, is not so enjoyable.

A century ago, citizens worried about all the new problems and "interference" that introducing the automobile would cause existing travelers. Vehicles with gasoline engines were noisy and caused more pollution. As more of them took to the roads, pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages were crowded off to the side. But the advantages of the automobile over horses and walking far outweighed the disadvantages. Mufflers were invented, roads were paved and widened and sidewalks were built.

HD Radio right now is like the first automobiles to travel unpaved roads. Think about what it will offer in another five or 10 years. History is squarely on the side of better technology as it pushes aside older, less efficient methods.

2. HD Radio causes new interference to adjacent-channel stations and reduces their coverage, especially AM at night. Why degrade useful reception of weaker signals?

Increased interference to adjacent channels is one of the compromises HD Radio does inflict on existing operations. The impact on the FM dial has been demonstrated as minimal. FM already tolerates similar degrees of interference in large markets and short-spaced situations.

The AM case is a bit more problematic. As more HD stations come online, some stations will probably lose some fringe area and distant nighttime service. But with less than 5 percent of all radio listening occurring on AM at night, this may prove to be more of a non-problem than many inside the industry think.

Whatever methods are used to resolve interference complaints, one aspect of this issue seems clear. For radio to thrive and remain successful, it will have to focus on serving its local and primary coverage area the best it can. The impact of the satellite services is pushing terrestrial radio in this direction anyway. Super-serving the local audience will have to become every station's mantra.

3. HD Radio lacks the killer app to attract public interest in buying the necessary new receivers. Any new consumer product needs this to be successful.

Most HD Radio detractors seem convinced that consumers will have little interest in forking over several hundred dollars more to buy an HD Radio instead of the inexpensive analog models they know and understand. Without a killer application, consumers won't buy them and HD Radio will fail just like the AM stereo experience.

I suggest that this paradigm is changing.

Every new technology-based consumer product that establishes itself as a long-term success has one or more killer apps. The automobile offered more speed, versatility and comfort. The first ones were very expensive and not that reliable. It took a while before assembly-line manufacturing techniques and improved quality control made them reliable and affordable for most consumers.

Thankfully, the advanced capabilities of today's consumer electronics industry move the development of new products like digital radios along rather quickly. As the penetration of XM and Sirius satellite radios accelerates, radio manufacturers are now looking at designing multi-mode digital radios that will include all digital formats.

Integrating separate RF sections and programming the DSP engine to include HD and XM functions in the same radio is relatively easy since the codecs are virtually identical. This is a natural evolution for car radio offerings and best serves consumer needs and preferences. What proves successful as a new feature in car radios usually finds its way into home radios and portable models.

MOER TO COME

The first-generation HD Radios only offer some of the advanced features that make HD Radio a superior performer over its analog parent. Most consumers will probably not be asking for an HD model or recognize a killer app when shopping for a new radio as more gen-one HD Radios start appearing in the marketplace. Awareness of what HD Radio offers will definitely take some time. Perceptions of it will be blurred with satellite services.

Noise-free, multipath-free reception is not by itself a killer app. Neither is the scrolling radio-text feature in its present form. But as more consumers become aware that these improvements are part of the satellite radio offerings already, they will naturally come to expect the same from terrestrial radio.

Data services will not flourish in HD Radio until protocols are more fully standardized and developed to exploit that resource. TIVO for radio, the "Buy Button" and other PAD services are the tip of that iceberg. We can only dream about what shape and form future data-delivered services might take in succeeding generations of HD Radios. Certainly streaming video and fully interactive features will be among them, especially in the all-digital HD Radio format. You can bet satellite will have them.

Offering a second program service within the same RF channel will be an important new capability for radio that only digital can deliver. Public radio stations everywhere are now planning their next rounds of CPB grant funding to include HD Radio conversion mainly to be able to take advantage of this powerful addition. Commercial stations have been slow to recognize the value of a second channel, but as soon as the rules for such service are established and one large group owner moves forward with it, you can bet many more will quickly follow.

Surround sound is shaping up to be the bona fide "wow-inducing" killer app for HD Radio. Consumers are flocking to home theatre 5.1 sound as a very hot seller in video and television. Cars automatically are suited for accommodating 5.1 speaker positions. Most manufacturers are ramping up to include this feature in many new luxury car models starting next year. Selling new surround sound versions of all the hit songs of the past could be a big shot in the arm for the troubled recording industry.

4. Ibiquity's technology is proprietary and not an open architecture that can accommodate future improvements from outside developers.

While this does make it a bit more difficult for independent companies not affiliated or invested in Ibiquity to bring improvements to it, it does not preclude them. Witness Ibiquity's change of codecs from PAC to HDC. They say it's unique, but HDC is merely a multi-streaming version of HEAAC (MPEG AAC+ with SBR), the same codec used by XM satellite. Ibiquity will most certainly be looking to incorporate worthy and compelling improvements to HD Radio in the future. It is, after all, only software.

Digital Radio Mondiale proponents see that system as technically superior and more flexible than the AM HD Radio solution. The two systems are really more similar than they are different, both using the same digital modulation building blocks. Software driven platforms are continuously adaptable and tweakable.

Even though the first generation of HD technology is set, there is really nothing to stop Ibiquity from co-opting and integrating some of the DRM features or other techniques yet undiscovered into AM HD Radio as the rollout moves forward with succeeding generations. Let your imagination contemplate what might be used or discovered for improving performance and mitigating interference.

5. Unlike HDTV, HD Radio does not have a mandatory, FCC-imposed conversion schedule. As with AM stereo, "Let the marketplace decide" is no decision at all and not the directive the industry needs to make this work long-term.

This objection has suddenly become less relevant in the face of the recent FCC decision to suspend the HDTV conversion timetable. Grand scale technology changes take time, money and effort to implement. All sorts of unknowns and variables change the course of man's best intentions.

Ibiquity learned from the mistakes of previous efforts to change or improve the basic engine of radio. Unlike FM Quad and AM stereo, HD Radio formed a solid alliance of investors and partners from the beginning from across the industry including broadcasters, transmission equipment companies and the all-important receiver companies. All the players are in this game together, with a carefully devised rollout strategy and timetable, making the chance of failure a more remote possibility.

The fact that a hard FCC mandate for conversion is not in place for HD Radio may not make much difference in the end as the rollout gains traction. As more stations broadcast with the new technology and more receivers penetrate the marketplace, the public will acquire and use it. Momentum towards the necessary critical mass that will make this happen is well underway. Analog-only hardware will slowly be displaced and fall by the wayside as antiquated relics of the past.

THE SELLING OF RECEIVERS

What will propel HD Radio sales more than anything else will be the simple fact that most automobile manufacturers will offer HD Radio models as an option or as the stock radio in higher-end 2006 models. That rollout accelerates and expands to most models in 2007. Radio manufacturers are focusing their design efforts for virtually all future models on DSP-based programmable platforms. They want to sell new digital models and want to supply radios based on common chipsets and see little future in supporting analog.

A similar mechanism was at work with RBDS. When it first rolled out in the United States in the 1990s, not many stations deployed it. Some that did stopped using it soon after they perceived very few RBDS receivers were being purchased or used. But thanks to its use elsewhere in the world, more and more RBDS-equipped car radios were being delivered in many European and Japanese car models here in the U.S.

In recent years, U.S. made cars started adding RBDS. The NAB now estimates about 30 percent of all car radios have RBDS and over 80 percent of all new cars are sold with RBDS. It's suddenly a hot ticket. Without even asking for it, U.S. consumers and broadcasters alike have discovered an impressive new feature that magically appeared in their car radios.

It's ironic that the satellite services are helping to accelerate the burgeoning public awareness of new digital receivers in the marketplace. Whether terrestrial broadcasters prefer to depend on analog for the long term may not matter. The rest of the world is moving forward with digital services and features in every consumer electronics appliance and device out there. Like it or not, terrestrial radio is being sucked into that vortex.

What further suggests increasing penetration of multi-function digital radios in cars that will include HD Radio is the recent move by many automobile companies to integrate some of the car's monitoring, signaling and navigation operations within the radio's DSP design itself. No longer can you easily replace a stock radio in many new cars with an after-market model without adversely affecting other electronic functions in the car.

This change seems to have crept into new car designs almost insidiously. In the near future, aftermarket car radios could fall dramatically in popularity. One of the reasons many radio manufacturers have delayed introduction of gen-one after-market and home models is the realization that OEM car radios will drive awareness and acceptance of HD Radio more than anything else. Many consumers will get an HD-equipped OEM radio when they buy a new car in the next few years without even knowing it or asking for it.

The stage is set. Radio is entering a new era propelled by new technology. It's really very simple. The digital bus with HD Radio onboard has left the terminal. Be on it or be under it.

Guy Wire welcomes your comments and questions. E-mail to gwire@imaspub.com.

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