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Asia-Pacific Radio Eyes Digital

Implementing IBOC will take many years, judging by the experiences the rest of the world is having implementing various forms of digital radio - experiences U.S. engineers can learn from.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia Implementing IBOC will take many years, judging by the experiences the rest of the world is having implementing various forms of digital radio – experiences U.S. engineers can learn from. That was one of the lessons gleaned from a recent Digital Radio Convention hosted by the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union.

The ABU said it drew more than 200 high-level broadcasters and governmental regulators from more than 30 countries to its intensive, week-long, digital radio-only convention in August; it was reportedly the first show demonstrating all of the ITU-recognized digital radio systems.

The Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union is a non-profit, non-government, professional association of broadcasting organizations. It was formed in 1964 to facilitate development of broadcasting in the region and to organize co-operative activities. It claims more than 160 members in 55 countries and regions.

The show theme, “Completing the Transition,” underscored a global commitment to digital radio among attendees, the majority of whom have completed the digitization of studio operations and many of whom are in the early stages of digital radio deployment.

On-the-air demonstrations were shown of Eureka-DAB, Terrestrial-Digital Multimedia Broadcasting, Digital Radio Mondiale and HD Radio, as well as the satellite-based WorldSpace system.

Detailed sessions focused on standards, transmission planning, applications and services, receiver developments, convergence and analog switch off.

For North American presenters, the 20-hour flight, date line jump and 12-hour time zone differential made for humorous adjustments. Stunning scenery nearby included the world’s tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers; the KL Tower, said to be the world’s fourth-highest communications tower; and a modern urban setting rising at a frenetic pace from the Malaysian jungle.

Ironically, the ABU Digital Radio Convention even had a Korean On-Air, No Gravity system (KONG) presentation to emphasize that we “weren’t in Kansas anymore.”

But while most American presenters are accustomed to self-swapping laptops, loading flash-drive presentations and craning their necks to follow co-presenters, the host ABU organization ran an impeccably smooth operation that kept the focus on content rather than erratic body clocks.

Dedicated panelist monitors, plenty of audience wireless mics and handlers, monstrous projection screens and a bevy of helpful support staff were behind the scenes synchronizing every session. Each attendee received a 300-page workbook packed with detailed convention presentations consolidating the best of current global digital radio information.

With many attendees clearly evaluating the applicability of Eureka, DRM or HD Radio systems to their needs, the sessions chronicling regulatory, funding and operating experiences were especially participatory and well attended.

Digital Listeners Listen More, More Often, And Are Buying Multiple Sets

The United Kingdom was a repeated highlight during the conference, with the most successful digital radio conversion to date. Some 3.2 million DAB sets have been sold there, representing a 42 percent increase since May of 2005, according to the Digital Radio Development Bureau, which promotes the technology in the U.K. Moreover, the group reported that digital radio owners are frequently buying multiple digital radio sets shortly after their first purchase.

Especially heartening for nations experiencing flat to modest radio listening declines, digital radio owners in the United Kingdom listen 16 percent more than analog listeners, 27.6 hours vs. 23.8 hours weekly, according to the promotional group. Digital radio owners also report listening to more stations – typically tuning to three stations each week vs. only 2.4 among analog listeners. Plentiful DAB sets in the U.K., aggressive promotion and a supportive regulatory environment were cited as important factors in the ramp-up in digital radio listening.

Throughout Asia, as well as Europe, research also points to increasing use of automobiles, attendant increases in mobile listening and the increasing availability of digital radios as standard new car options.

Receivers and Content: Majority of U.K. Now DAB Households

A constant theme among presenters was the overmastering importance of the combination of new content offerings and affordable receivers. Where the digital conversion is working well, it’s invariably the confluence of new content and low-priced receivers that is driving success.

The United Kingdom bright spot now touts a total of over 3.2 million receivers having been sold, with DAB content reaching 55 percent of all households in many markets, thanks to television audio and Internet distribution simulcasts. That it has taken 10 years of concerted effort to reach this milestone is a sobering reminder to all undertaking digital radio conversion.

One presenter summed up a unifying theme that “One does not undertake digital conversion for the fun of it. It’s hard work.” Transitioning any industry to an entirely new technology is an inherently daunting task. Yet when it involves inducing consumers to replace multiple ubiquitous household appliances that still work well, it will necessarily require a lengthy transition.

Nonetheless, the WorldDAB Forum reported that U.K. retailer Dixon’s would soon discontinue sales of analog radios due to the growth of digital radio sales. Additionally, U.K. major retailer John Lewis’ latest catalog only features DAB sets.

With more than 5,000 articles having been written on DAB, it’s no surprise that Curry’s is promoting both digital television and digital radio by offering a free DAB receiver to Flat Panel TV purchasers. Just over three years ago the 99œ Pure Digital “Evoke-1” model debuted; the figure is equivalent to about $185 U.S. DAB proponents generally credit the radio as being a primary spark in the growth of Eureka-147.

Side-by-Side Comparisons: Receivers, Spectrum Efficiency, Regulatory Peril

The system contrasts between DAB, DMB, DRM and HD Radio were highlighted at numerous sessions. For Eureka, the theme of a global standard in operation on multiple continents repeatedly was emphasized, as well as the availability of more than 200 receiver models in the marketplace.

At the same time, the reduced costs, spectrum efficiency and regulatory simplicity of the more recently deployed HD Radio system gained significant interest, with the Harris and Broadcast Electronics booths receiving high traffic. The BE demo featured three audio channels running in the extended-hybrid mode, complete with PAD on all streams, feeding a Boston Acoustics HD-R receiver. The demo was a big hit and afterwards a similar BE demonstration was headed to Hong Kong where local operator Metro Radio will broadcast during the Sourcing China conference in mid-October.

That show will nudge the number of HD Radio on-air demonstrations up to a dozen countries on three four continents: North America (U.S., Mexico, Canada); Europe (France and Switzerland); Asia (Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong); and South America (Brazil). For attendees contemplating their system options, the North American Broadcasters Association provided 200 of its recently updated 50-page “Guide to Digital Radio Systems in North America” – a handout chronicling the deployment and demonstrations of DAB, HD Radio and DRM in this continent.

HD Radio Themes Receive Boost From DAB Proponents?

Despite committing to the Eureka DAB system, Commercial Radio Australia highlighted the potential perils of requiring access to new spectrum, acknowledging its disappointment with less than full success in seeking a 10-year moratorium on the deployment of new radio stations in new DAB spectrum.

Surprisingly, among the 250 models of DAB receivers on the market, CRA representatives indicated that they were less than satisfied with the design quality of available DAB units and had commissioned a prototype radio built to their specifications in Malaysia featuring rugged construction, elegant design and a large, bright display screen for feature-rich program associated data.

While not altering the allegiance to the DAB election by commercial radio broadcasters in Australia, these cautionary reports highlighted the perils of being subject to unpredictable regulatory oversight in gaining access to new spectrum, and the current shortcomings in acquiring high-quality digital radios at modest costs, even for the most successfully deployed digital radio system.

Emergency Alert Capabilities a Common Developmental Feature

Convention attendees, many representing regions affected by the Asian Tsunami of December 2004, were keenly interested in the advanced alerting capabilities inherent in digital radio systems. While standards and power consumption have limited the initial deployment of alerting capabilities, all proponents highlighted efforts underway to capitalize on radio’s traditional role as a communications lifeline during emergencies.

The advanced alerting and messaging capabilities of digital transmission were discussed at length, with many approaches being investigated in different countries and with active discussions ongoing with governmental authorities on best alerting and messaging system configurations.

The ABU showcased an efficiently designed “radio station in a box” by its technical staff, one that could be transported easily to disaster areas and activated immediately to provide emergency coverage. Housed in a rugged transportable case, the unit consists of a Chinese-produced 30W FM transmitter, a sliding tray that carries the laptop used for editing and as the playout server, 12 channel mixer, CD/Cassette player and a patch panel that also has a USB port for access to the laptop to download digital audio files from a portable digital audio recorder.

A dipole antenna is also supplied.

Accessible Radio Services: A Well-Received Service Concept

For NPR, I presented on the topic of accessible radio services, noting that NAB2006 was the venue for the first four-channel HD Radio demo featuring a radio reading service for the visually impaired as a fourth channel (along with three music-based channels), as well as the first demonstration of captioned radio for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Specialized approaches to the alerting and emergency services needs of these constituencies were explored, with significant interest in the concept of bed-shaker alerting support for the hearing impaired.

The additional potential to offer near-real-time described video via digital radio reading services for the print handicapped was detailed, in addition to conditional access encryption for maintaining copyright exemptions for daily printed material readings. This topic was well received among Asia-Pacific attendees, many of whom report having higher national percentages of hearing and visually disabled than the reported 32 million Americans so affected (11 percent).

Convergence Competitiveness: KONG, Taxi-Smart & Visual Radio

The multimedia capabilities of digital radio were an additional theme, as service extensions of traditional radio services. In Singapore, for example, a Taxi-Smart system is being tested as a component of a Smart Radio system by MediaCorp radio.

The service is not dissimilar to hard-disk systems found in many New York taxis with backseat screens detailing restaurant, show and event listings. The DAB-based Taxi-Smart system emphasizes real-time interactivity with the latest news, weather and financial data at the customer’s fingertips.

The Korean On-Air, No Gravity system features audio services, visual radio, messaging and fun “skins.” A skin is a graphical interface giving the user control over the look of the interactive DMB radio experience. The KONG uses the DMB protocol that is compatible with DAB transmission architecture. Visual Radio Service was also highlighted, which like the KONG and Smart Radio systems can be deployed over DAB or DMB transmitters, in addition to Web streaming, to build radio brand loyalty.

The Korean Broadcasting Service launched Visual Radio in March of 2005. KBS says Visual Radio increases audience participation, offering a constant stream of studio pictures, messaging, station-based slide shows and additional information on multiple sub-channels.

Harris Corp., which says it’s the only manufacturer to sell DAB, DRM and HD Radio transmitters, was the convention’s principal sponsor, with Ibiquity Digital’s HD Radio and some dozen other organizations providing additional sponsorship support.

It was an invigorating convention, sobering in the reality of the daunting task of converting billions of radio listeners worldwide to digital radio, but stimulating in the early successes, creativity and valuable feature sets being undertaken worldwide in the heady world of tomorrow’s radio.

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