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Digital: Catch All or Step by Step?

What is the best and surest way to digitize radio?

The author is chairman of Digital Radio Mondiale.

Digital radio standards celebrate different milestones, as they are at different stages of their life and development.

DAB is 21, HD Radio was born in 2001 and Digital Radio Mondiale has just become a teenager, with 2003 as its birth year. But digital radio as a whole is still in its formative years. As demonstrated during the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) General Assembly, the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) General Assembly in October, as well as at various African events, many developing countries are just starting to focus on radio digitization.

Many administrations have quickly discovered that digitizing radio is not simple, as there is no clear and “juicy” digital dividend at the end of the process. Unlike digital TV, where there is a standard consensus, in radio there are different options and models, not to speak of a perceived competition between standards. Then IP, or even DTT, are sometimes thrown into the mix and touted as possible replacements for terrestrial broadcasting. And there are also different possible digitization models. Is it better to start in the big cities and then digitally colonize the rest of the country? Or should we go for complete country coverage (big city and small village in one go) using existing AM and VHF capabilities?

Each option seems to have its merits. If you start with the big cities, you can show some quick wins, as the number of listeners will be good and advertising, read revenues, will be healthy, too. The disadvantage is that, as you are trying to spread the digital jam all over the country, every new percentage in coverage or listeners’ number becomes increasingly expensive. Unless there is some substantial government intervention and support, or some other more economical, easier to implement solution, some communities might remain digital outcasts.

The big challenge is not how to start digitizing but how to bring it to a successful conclusion in a reasonable period. This is the experience in the United Kingdom, where DAB is finally well established but at a cost, after a false start. This hard work is not rewarded yet with a switch off date, though it might not be so far away. The incremental coverage has an impact on the car industry, too. If a country does not have large, continuous and demonstrable digital coverage, the city dwellers will be easily disappointed once they jump in their cars and start on their journey to go see grandma in the smaller town or village.

As a DRM proponent, I see the decision to ensure good and complete coverage of a territory as the better solution. Even so, this has its own pitfalls and challenges. AM digitization can offer total coverage at a stroke. However, AM is, for some less informed people, an old-fashioned analog solution with poor sound and high energy costs. The truth is that digital AM is a different proposition that delivers perfect, FM, or better than FM sound, with energy savings of up to 60 to 80 percent. And of course, DRM has also a good, FM band digitization solution. But then the receiver question arises, though these digital receivers are clearly appearing. It is also certain that no matter what standard is involved, receivers will not be produced if there are no digital signals on air. And if there are plenty of receivers, but patchy digitization, then those receivers won’t sell.

For governments and stakeholders to take a wholesale decision and to implement digital radio for the good of all the citizens in a country is a big act of faith and courage. India has done it as 600 million people are covered by digital signals. But, even there, the fine-tuning of the transmissions and the content enhancement is just beginning. It is a project that needs to involve journalists, planners, advertisers, the industry and listeners in its next stage.

So, wholesale or piecemeal? The easy answer could be: it depends. If you want to offer digital radio to 2 million Slovenes, perhaps going concentrically is acceptable. If you want to do the same with over 1 billion people or even in a country with a population of more than 100 million spread over a large territory, the decision may be different.

The path taken depends on a lot of criteria, budgets, political resolve and might go one way or another or be a combination of the two, which is just fine. However, beyond technologies, what must underpin such a decision is the answer to a much deeper question: Are all citizens entitled to the same services, regardless of whether they live in big cities, small towns or on islands? Is each government ready to treat everyone equally, even if this might take money and time?

There are no easy answers but then digital radio is quickly becoming an adult, leaving its teenage years behind. This, of course, brings with it responsibilities and — hopefully — the ability to make responsible decisions.