Vendors Tout Audio Over IP, IP-Based Remote Control for Transmitters, Emergence of HD Radios
NAB2006 is in the books as a resounding success for vendors and attendees alike. Every vendor I talked to said this was their most productive NAB in many years. Not enough working engineers get to attend this annual rite of passage, so your intrepid masked confidante will share some insights gleaned from travailing through April's proceedings in Sin City.
This was the year of IP connectivity for broadcast products of all flavors. Few radio stations nowadays operate without a LAN, storage servers and workstations producing and moving the product. IP has really mushroomed in recent years as most new product introductions feature Ethernet ports for joining both wired and wireless LANs.
Remote control for transmitter sites via IP also is catching on quickly. This will become very important for stations adding HD and HD2 operations going forward. Why put up with the pager pestering you to drive up a mountain road just to reset something when all you literally need to do is lift a finger to complete the task? Do it in your easy chair at home via computer or from your wireless laptop in Starbucks, or via your Web-enabled cell phone.
A few brave folks are even using wireless LAN links to do this directly where wired ISP services to transmitter sites are not available. Chuck Lakaytis at Alaska Public Broadcasting is controlling five sites via wireless IP and designing a system to add 26 more. Using SSL encryption should provide adequate security against hackers.
Several new budget-priced remote control devices attracted considerable attention. Among those are Broadcast Tools' WVRC-8 and the WIT easi-8, both of which won RW "Cool Stuff" awards.
IP AUDIO GROWS
Audio over IP for both remote broadcast applications and entire studio facilities really came into its own this year. Using Laptops and Flash recorders along with access to wireless LANs has revolutionized the way field news reporters do their jobs. But now they also can do much of the same work via the "high-fidelity" cell phone with G3 connectivity. Comrex again showed its Access "BRIC" system with first deliveries of the cell phone and cradle kit later this summer.
The demonstration of Peter Greenberg's "Travel Today" broadcast during the NAB2006, live from 37,000 feet on a Lufthansa jet trip from Frankfurt, Germany to New York proved this technology has a bright future. Using the Access in combination with the Boeing Connexion satellite air-phone system and an Internet backhaul to the Los Angeles studios, the show sounded superb with no drops or stutters -- even when one of the show's callers called from another jet flight crossing the Atlantic in the other direction.
Comrex, Tieline, Telos, APT and other companies showed new IP-based remote broadcast products that may very well sunset the venerable Marti RPU and eventually even the popular POTS codecs. The first question you may want to ask a store hosting your next broadcast remote is, "Do you have broadband cable or DSL in the house and can we use it for our broadcast?" If those resources do not allow full-speed duplex, you may still need cell phones or some other RF link for real-time IFB if needed; but this new choice is rapidly muscling its way into the remote broadcast limelight.
AXIA ON THE MOVE
Axia Audio introduced its audio-over-IP studio control and routing system several years ago, but it was clear this year the concept has jelled into the next major paradigm for studio design. Axia has signed up a bevy of well known broadcast manufacturing and software partners to expand its universe; no longer do we have to worry about it being a proprietary system using proprietary software from a sole supplier.
While some engineers are concerned about lack of standards for audio over IP, Axia's Michael "Catfish" Dosch keeps reminding everyone that TCP/IP is the only real standard needed for its technology, and it is entirely open. Axia has written a software driver that lets Windows-enabled devices play any audio routed over IP.
Others are still wary about sending packetized, mission-critical real-time audio over LANs with the potential vulnerabilities of latency and lost data. Axia says that with the proper routers and setup this is nothing to fret about. It reminds me of when we first worried about transmitting digital audio over LANs or letting hard drives stream it to the air chain. As technology and hardware advances prove themselves worthy, old fears wash away quickly.
Another innovation in console design was shown at the Harrison booth. A longtime supplier of live performance and recording studio consoles, Harrison added the free and powerful Audacity audio editor to its Trion console. It's an open-source product built on their Ikis platform. Software control is based on Linux, and talks USB and Ethernet. For those who don't want to pay hefty licensing fees for mainstream options, this could be just the ticket.
SURROUND SOUND SLOWS
5.1 surround sound was on the NAB2006 radar screen this year, but it did not command the sense that it was a contending "killer-app" for digital radio. Telos demonstrated its Fraunhofer discrete system with an impressive A-B comparison against a captive Harris/Neural matrix system.
Meanwhile across the hall, Harris/Neural showed their latest SW 4.0 codec and 5.1 surround signal processing product. It features an intuitive GUI that allows the user to visualize 5.1 balancing and mixing effects as adjustments and corresponding sonic evaluations are made. That innovation garnered a Cool Stuff award.
Telos is teaming up with WZLX(FM) in Boston to launch the first over-the-air fulltime 5.1 surround sound encoded FM transmission this summer. I still think the industry has a long way to go before a significant market of available standardized 5.1 content and OEM 5.1 sound systems in new cars drives any demand for this technology.
The industry's acceptance and full endorsement of HD Radio as its digital standard going forward came through loud and clear this year. Almost every booth showing a broadcast product of significance touted it as HD-ready.
Many vendors said until this year, most customers had just been kicking tires and were quite tentative about HD, making few commitments. But the number of naysayers and antagonists seems to be dwindling by the day.
Since the days of USADR, the various IBOC systems proponents have all had booths at the NAB show. But not this year. Most attendees found it curious that Ibiquity would be MIA without a booth to tout its system and show off new receiver designs. It did have a nice hospitality suite and Ibiquity managers were seen milling around the company's manufacturing partners' booths.
But the absence of a large Ibiquity display booth seems to send a signal that Bob Struble believes his marketing job is mostly done. The heavy lifting of promoting HD and making it stick is now in the hands of broadcasters and receiver-makers.
BUT WHAT ABOUT AM?
Even as FM HD's adoption accelerates nicely across all markets and companies of decent size, the future of AM HD remains in doubt as the cloud of uncertainty about night interference and lost coverage lingers. This had been perhaps the most hotly debated question of the HD rollout, and it has yet to be adequately answered with any independent real-world studies or tests.
I was disappointed to see that virtually none of the sessions or papers even attempted to shed light on what's going to happen when the FCC authorizes full-time AM HD operations. There are about 120 AM HD stations on the air operating daytime with plenty of critical hours experience. It seems only reasonable that before the commission authorizes full-time AM HD, it would grant a number of Special Temporary Authorizations allowing key, existing AM HD stations to stay on at night in order to evaluate skywave behavior and the critical issues of interference and lost coverage.
Unfortunately that would have been too sensible and logical for the FCC to pursue, and it is not equipped to tackle too much hard work. At least it could have farmed out the project to capable consulting firms. Instead, we are now hearing that as soon as it gets a fifth commissioner in the next few months, the proposal to allow full-time AM HD will be adopted and the floodgates will open.
CPB is pursuing a new study this summer on how well HD will cover and what the interference impact will be as the rollout continues. But this appears to be for FM only. Another loud signal: AM HD isn't all that important anymore.
Ibiquity, along with its major broadcast partners, has apparently made the strategic decision to essentially turn its back on the probable interference fallout that full-time AM HD will spawn, and instead concentrate on the more lucrative potential that FM HD, multichannel and data initiatives will provide.
Overall, it seems obvious that effective AM coverage and de facto protected contours will shrink. Secondary contour and fringe coverage will be lost to many stations. Mostly large-market, high-power signals with low night limits will have the best chance to retain respectable coverage, both inside their protected and secondary contours.
Local channel, marginal regional channel and rim-shot facilities may find that they indeed will lose much of their target area coverage, and fighting this reality will prove to be difficult if not futile. Some may decide to place those formats on a sister FM HD2 channel or, perish the thought, lease time on a competitor's facility or just become an Internet station.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
DRM and DRE did show some presence at NAB2006, but not in a way that would suggest either is ever going to be a viable U.S. alternative to Ibiquity and HD Radio. While DRE is a clever concept and makes better use of the FM composite spectrum, DRE reminds me a little bit of Noise-Free Radio: A novel but flawed idea in its day and clearly not the long-term answer the industry needs going forward in the 21st century.
DRM is still concentrating mostly on shortwave applications but has introduced a VHF mode that could be useful in the FM band. Yet they have done nothing to further refine or advocate the use of its little-known hybrid mode for AM applications in the U.S. Many of us still believe the single-sideband AM mode of DRM has significant potential to help AM get through the messy HD hybrid phase.
Ibiquity might consider any part of DRM as a possible remedy to improve AM HD if the full-time rollout becomes a legal quagmire of interference litigation. Only then will it become motivated to look for a more viable hybrid solution if enough important AM stations press their case.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
FM HD is now gaining international traction, as the U.S. rollout looks more and more promising. Other countries, primarily Asia, are looking at it as a potential compatible digital mode with existing analog services.
With almost 800 U.S. stations having added HD operations and HD2 formats appearing almost daily, receiver manufacturers are bringing more products to market every week in support of the rollout. Even RadioShack has just announced it will carry HD radios. Best Buy and Circuit City can't be far behind.
The Boston Acoustics Recepter was seen in many booths and has quickly become the reference HD monitor receiver of choice for many. And I finally got to see the long-overdue Radiosophy portable boom-box combo. Three demonstration units were all working nicely on the floor, although I found them rather toasty to the touch.
Minimizing power consumption still seems to be a challenge, suggesting there is still a fair amount of work to do to get the HD receiver chipset squeezed into a smaller, more power-efficient package for portables.
The industry is experiencing warp-speed changes as HD charts a new course for broadcasters, equipment manufacturers and listeners alike. For those who focus on creating and delivering quality and compelling content on the new delivery platforms, while super-serving their local audiences, success will come more easily.
Vendors Tout Audio Over IP, IP-Based Remote Control for Transmitters, Emergence of HD Radios