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Globally, Digital Radio Progresses

Various technologies fit various needs, but digital has forward momentum

At BES Expo 2013 in New Delhi, India, NXP Semiconductors demonstrated a multi-standard chipset that can support DRM30, DRM+, DAB, DAB+, T-DMB and HD Radio on AM and FM. Shown are Karthik Ramesh of NXP and DRM Marketing Director Radu Obreja (holding the chip). Credit: Courtesy DRM Consortium

No longer an oddity, digital radio in many corners of the world is becoming an important part of the mediascape and a next step in the evolution of content delivery.

From maturing markets in Europe to a massive developing network in India, for digital radio broadcasting the focus is moving from tests and trials to implementation, promotion and growth.

In February the European Broadcasting Union issued Recommendation R 138, laying forth the goal of moving forward with digital radio, primarily the DAB+ version of Eureka-147, across the continent. The EBU membership includes all the large, well-established public-service broadcasting companies in Europe, so while this is not a mandate, it does have institutional weight behind it. Most European public-service broadcasting companies have active DAB services or, at the least, trial services on the air.

While recognizing that different countries are at various stages of digital deployment, EBU R 138 calls for “immediate deployment” using DAB+ in VHF band III and, in areas where DAB coverage is not practical, the DRM30 and/or DRM+ system.

Both the Eureka-147 and DRM families are open standards published by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. The WorldDMB Forum is the main promoter of DAB/DAB+ technology, while the Digital Radio Mondiale Consortium is the primary promoter of DRM30/DRM+.

“This is a relatively new document and too early to measure the effect. We must also remember that it is a recommendation and not a directive,” said WorldDMB President Jørn Jensen. “However we believe it will be useful for countries who are in doubt about the future of broadcasting in Europe.”

The DRM Consortium welcomed the inclusion of a recommendation for the DRM systems.

“We are very pleased that the EBU recommendation recognizes that, while DRM might be a full solution in some parts of the world, in others (like Europe) it can be an excellent complementary solution to DAB/DAB+,” said DRM Consortium Chair Ruxandra Obreja.

The Community Media Forum Europe and AMARC Europe, which represent the community and local radio sectors, both have advocated the use of DRM+ as a digital radio alternative service for community and local broadcasters in Europe and elsewhere.

At the end of April, the Landeszentrale für Medien und Kommunikation, the broadcasting regulator for the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, announced plans to pursue a migration of local stations to DRM+ once the statewide DAB+ network is complete.

In the United Kingdom, a series of radio, television and print ads featuring the deep-voiced puppet D Love is promoting digital radio. Get a look at the D Love digital radio promotional campaign here.

Since 2011, Germany has pursued an aggressive national rollout of DAB+ services under the slogan “Radio der Zukunft,” which means Radio of the Future. The rollout involves both public and private broadcasters, and includes outside broadcasts, events and other efforts to educate the public about digital radio. Currently more than 90 percent of the German population is within range of DAB+ signals, and network operator Media Broadcast expects to have the full national network complete by 2015.

The WorldDMB Forum credits the German digital radio effort with generating “new momentum to the international rollout of digital radio.” Since the largest economy in Europe has moved forward with DAB

The United Kingdom remains the strongest market for Eureka-147 DAB. According to the first-quarter 2013 RAJAR audience survey, released in May, about 34.3 percent of listening hours are via a digital platform, and half the U.K. population now tunes in to digital radio at least once per week. Some 94 percent of the country is covered by the BBC’s multiplexes, and commercial radio covers about 85 percent of the country.

The U.K. government has set forth a commitment to make a decision by the end of the year about whether to proceed with an analog FM switchoff and full migration to DAB. If a decision to proceed with a digital switchover is made, a target date will not be set until digital listening crests the 50 percent mark, which Digital Radio UK projects will happen in early 2016.

In Norway, however, the government’s plan for a digital radio switchover is moving apace.

As in the United Kingdom, targets for DAB/DAB+ coverage and listenership have been set and a switchover for most stations could occur as early as 2017. After the switchover, community and small local stations would be allowed to continue on FM. The exact parameters for FM operations are set to be outlined in 2015.

Similarly, in Denmark — where 37 percent of households have a digital radio, according to Danmarks Statistik — a target date of 2019 has been set for a digital switchover.

The Netherlands plans to begin an aggressive public DAB+ rollout in September of this year. DAB services already reach about 70 percent of Dutch households, but 38 new transmitters are slated to come online by 2017, ensuring good indoor reception throughout the nation. Depending upon uptake, the country could begin planning a full digital switchover in 2016.

As digital radio continues to roll out, Jensen said, the push to move entirely to digital should grow, too.

Outside of Europe, Australia remains the strongest market for DAB+, which launched there in metropolitan areas in 2009. According to Commercial Radio Australia, citing Nielsen Radio survey results, 12.3 percent of the population listens to radio with a DAB+ device weekly.

While there is no direct push to synchronize digital strategies across Europe, EBU R 138 suggests that greater coordination could help digitization.

“Harmonization in the timetable for deployment of digital radio across Europe, including a target date for the switch-off of analog radio, would create a greater momentum and market take-up,” the recommendation states.

Jensen said, “We anticipate there will be an increase in focus on growth and development of business models for radio via digital. This will lead to increased revenues, which will overshadow the lower revenues generated from analog radio. These developments will lead to the eventual ‘fading’ away of analog radio in more and more countries. … Each market is unique in its development and rollout strategy.”

The “sleeping tiger” for digital radio is India. The national public service All India Radio is upgrading its network of short- and medium-wave transmitters to support DRM30 operation across the country.

“A digital program of the kind envisaged by All India Radio is without comparison in the world and it aims to reach a billion people ultimately,” said Obreja. “As it is a serious plan, the rollout will take the time that is the commensurate with this huge task. The next 12 to 18 months are crucial to the upgrade of the AIR network and its DRM conversion.”

Private analog FM continues to grow in India; but that is centered in the metropolitan areas, and regulatory limitations on broadcasting news and other informational programming mean that AIR remains the country’s dominant radio service, which is what makes its three-year plan to migrate to DRM30 so impressive, according to observers.

With a population of about 1.25 billion people, an established tech sector and a growing economy, the potential for a critical market base for DRM receivers is good. The challenge, however, will be to develop affordable DRM or multistandard receivers.

The ABCs of DRB
Digital radio broadcasting, or DRB as it is referred to in some countries, is achieved through a variety of technologies and standards.

Setting aside satellite- or IP-based digital radio systems, there are four main families of systems used for terrestrial DRB worldwide: Eureka-147 DAB, promoted by the WorldDMB Forum; DRM, promoted by the Digital Radio Mondiale Consortium; HD Radio, developed by iBiquity Digital; and ISDB-TSB, promoted by DiBEG. Each of these has multiple layers and versions, and has found differing levels of acceptance in separate corners of the world and for assorted uses.

HD Radio has AM and FM versions, and DRM has DRM30 for use in the bands below 30 MHz (AM, shortwave and longwave) and DRM+ for use in FM/VHF. Eureka-147 has DAB and DAB+, as well as T-DMB for video services. The biggest difference between DAB and DAB+ is the codec used. The newer DAB+ standard employs MPEG-4 HE ACC v2, as opposed to MPEG-1 Audio Layer II codec, which allows for more efficient spectrum use.

Just as HD Radio development is greatest in North America and ISDB-TSB is used primarily in Japan, DAB/DAB+ have found its greatest acceptance in Europe and Australia, while DRM30 is in the midst of an ambitious roll-out in South Asia.

Around the world, this receiver issue remains the biggest challenge for digital radio.

“The full marketing and availability of mass receivers (in India, for example) can only begin once sufficient DRM content is available and its extra benefits and features can be demonstrated to the public,” Obreja said.

For DAB/DAB+, the market is more established, with a variety of receivers available for the home, portable and automobile segments. “There is a wide range of choice available in the ‘high street’ and online,” Jensen said, with prices as low as roughly $26 and expectations that the price would fall to about $20 by 2015. “For example, Germany sees more than 250 DAB+ compatible devices available, and manufacturers are bringing more and more devices to the international market.”

The expiration of the original Eureka-147 DAB patent in early 2013 has had a small but significant impact on the cost of DAB receivers, reducing the cost of importing digital radios into Europe and other markets by about $3.30. Jensen said that a drop in retail costs of about $5 is expected by year-end.

The automotive market is also heating up, with 35.4 percent of new cars in the United Kingdom, for example, including digital radio as standard, according to a survey by Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

WorldDMB Forum hosted its fifth annual European Automotive Event in May to bring together broadcasters and car manufacturers to discuss issues and trends in the implementation of digital radio.

Part of the challenge for receiver manufacturers is to develop new radios that can take advantage of still-evolving multimedia services offered in parallel with digital radio audio services.

EBU R 138 encourages the further development, rollout and use of enhanced features, “such as text, images and program guides to keep radio relevant in the digital age.” It also recommends the use of RadioDNS-based “hybrid” radio services that make use of IP transmission to complement over-the-air transmissions.

Over the past year, the WorldDMB Technical Committee has developed standards for the use of logos and other visual elements to improve their display on devices with color touch screens. Its next project looks at how the DAB family of standards operates with IP-connected radios.

“WorldDMB is anticipating enormous growth in apps and business models in the near future” when digital radio chips are embedded inside mobile phones, said Jensen. “The potential is great when broadcast and IP are brought together on one platform and we see a healthy broadcast industry for many years.”

Obreja said, “We must remember that no matter which technological platform is chosen by a station or a country, the ultimate aim is to prove the superiority of digital radio, its extra multimedia features and its acceptance by the public.”

Another challenge, especially if various broadcast segments adopt differing standards, is ensuring that receivers can “hear” all the signals around them. For example, if larger broadcasters are using DAB+ but local radio digitizes with DRM+, consumers need a receiver that tunes and decodes both.

EBU R 138 “is also important as it calls for the harmonization of digital radio and raises the challenge that we all as an industry know we must address — making multiplatform chips available in all relevant devices,” Jensen said.

HD Radio has been deployed overseas as well as in the U.S. and its territories including Puerto Rico. The technology has been officially adopted in Mexico, Panama and the Philippines. In Mexico, 35 stations have converted, including 12 in Mexico City. There are 24 multicast signals operating in Mexico, according to iBiquity, which adds that a couple of FMs have converted in Panama and about 10 HD Radio stations are on-air in the Philippines.

Elsewhere in the world, station conversions and operations have been reported in Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Dominican Republic, Romania, Thailand, Trinidad and Uzbekistan. There have been tests and trials in other countries with South Korea and Vietnam probably being the most recent, according to the technology developer.

In Brazil and China, iBiquity has formed joint ventures with other technology developers to address technical and business needs in those markets. In Brazil, iBiquity partnered with a group of technology experts to form Tell HD, which is focused on commercializing the HD Radio system in South America and has rights to iBiquity’s IP for that market. In China, iBiquity partnered with a technology developer and others to form HuaSheng Technologies. HuaSheng has the rights to develop and license systems based on iBiquity’s IP.