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In Search of the Universal Receiver

Whether such a device is produced by mandate or voluntarily, it would combine both forms of satellite radio with both forms of terrestrial radio, something that no device manufactured to date has done.

You’ve probably heard about Ibiquity Digital Corp.’s quest to have the Federal Communications Commission place a condition on approving the satellite radio merger, one that would require future satellite radio receivers to include HD Radio capability.

Whether such a device is produced by mandate or voluntarily, it would combine both forms of satellite radio with both forms of terrestrial radio, something that no device manufactured to date has done.

Meanwhile, we are seeing a lot of new standalone Internet radio “appliances” entering the market lately.

Only a few of these include AM or FM receivers, and none to date include HD Radio. Thus a device that combined Internet radio with HD Radio would also be a first.

This is a variant of the original “boombox with a browser” concept espoused in this column over five years ago, which still has not broadly appeared in the marketplace.

(click thumbnail)Original image ©Viktor Gmyria/iStockphoto
While we’re envisioning such consumer-electronic chimeras, why not go for it all and suggest an AM/FM/HD/Sirius/XM/Internet device — the universal American radio receiver?

Throw programmable, integrated off-air recording and a podcast client into the mix and you’ve got perhaps “The Ultimate Radio.”

Could it be possible? Probably not, and here’s why.


First, let’s stipulate that we are talking about a dedicated, or “embedded,” device here — as opposed to a PC with a bunch of plug-in tuner cards and some sort of kludged antenna farm.

To be practical, the hardware device should have form and function as close as possible to today’s radio devices, usable in home, car, office and portable/handheld applications. (Anyway, this converged functionality isn’t readily available yet on the PC platform, either, and the software-defined radio is still science fiction at the consumer level.)

This product would also have to be widely available at a reasonable cost — ideally at price points not much greater than those of today’s regular analog radios, in each of the form factors mentioned.

And that’s where the problems start.

Consider the intellectual property cost of such a device. The licensing fees alone would probably make it prohibitively expensive before the first piece of silicon was baked. The pure hardware expense might not be so bad in comparison, but it would certainly add fuel to the fire.

Three tuners, an IP stack (the other IP, Internet Protocol), and at least six different audio codecs, plus control hardware and screen, audio infrastructure, chassis and antennas, and we’re likely into the four-figure range.

Could this price be subsidized by service providers down to something reasonable? This also seems unlikely when it provides so many options for access to competing services.

(Consider that even the FCC-“suggested” XM/Sirius converged receiver has never emerged, which developers also blamed on untenable cost, but the concern over competitive access was almost certainly also involved. This is evidenced by the new commitments by satellite radio to such a device now, as a part of the proposed merger. The potential absence of competition magically erases those previously cited cost concerns. Hmm …)

Further, the possible low initial demand for such a device wouldn’t help drive the price down organically.

Other practical matters include the issues of multiple antennas and battery life on portable designs. These would likely constrain the handheld form factor from becoming very small and lightweight. The multiple-antenna issue would also complicate aftermarket automotive installations.

Finally, there is the strange element of mixing so many pay and free services on a single terminal device.

Yes, most satellite radios today include AM/FM, but this is largely out of necessity, given satellite radio’s primary target of automotive use. Concern over churn is so high that it is unlikely the satellite radio providers would approve of additional free services being bundled on their receivers.

(This argument may soon be altered, however, since one likely outcome of the merger is an open-market requirement for satellite radio receivers, so the service provider[s] would no longer hold such unilateral control. On the other hand, in such an environment, the provision of receiver subsidies by the service provider is also less certain.)

Overall, for all of the reasons above, the concept of a truly universal receiver seems destined to remain a consumer pipedream.

A few good PPMs

Beyond the point of competitive access on subsidized receivers mentioned above, the idea of any sort of converged device isn’t very appealing to any service provider.

This is simply because the more channels that are available on any device, the less likelihood there is for any individual channel to be listened to — statistically speaking, at least.

This could be part of the reason why we’ve seen so few Internet radios with even AM/FM included, which would be a cheap and easy option to add. Correspondingly, local radio stations remain happy to see the continuing survival of the lowly AM/FM-only receiver as a baseline product in traditional consumer electronics — but for how much longer?

Making this concern even worse is the move toward new technology in audience measurement.

For example, the Arbitron Portable People Meter system can accommodate a large number of both traditional and new audio delivery channels, tracking them each accurately. With the pie sliced ever more thinly through the availability of new services, broadcasters probably won’t like what they see with such precise reporting.

This is where Jack Nicholson tells the GM, “You can’t handle the truth!”

So it appears that convergence isn’t high on anyone’s roadmap in either the radio receiver or broadcast industry. Only consumers would benefit from such a process, and their interests are unlikely to be fully served without regulatory pressure.

If you can’t beat ’em …

If total convergence is off the table, is there any value to (or likelihood of) partial steps toward this end?

We have seen at least one Internet radio model recently add a standard AM/FM tuner, and, as mentioned, we may soon see converged XM/Sirius radios, most of which will likely include AM/FM receivers like most of the current, separate XM and Sirius receivers do.

But there has been resistance among some receiver manufacturers toward Ibiquity Digital’s call for mandatory inclusion of HD Radio capabilities in satellite radio receivers.

Meanwhile, a number of recent 3G wireless phones are making it easy to receive Internet radio on a portable device, and very few of these include AM/FM receivers.

This is clearly a two-edged sword for broadcasters. An AM/FM-only device keeps the competitive service providers at bay, but new devices without AM/FM receivers keeps local radio content off of increasingly popular emerging platforms.

Yes, there are already more AM/FM-only receivers in use than any of these other new devices, but sales of those old one-trick radio ponies are decreasing rapidly, as we discussed here in the May 7 column.

Should broadcasters therefore welcome any opportunity to see AM/FM bundled with other formats, as a way of keeping themselves in the game, albeit for a lesser share of the listening? On balance, the answer probably is yes.

Meanwhile broadcasters can also hedge their bets by putting their content into the environments that these new devices can receive, wherever possible. Since we’ll probably never see a universal receiver, perhaps broadcasters can move toward becoming “universal transmitters.”