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‘No More Choices, Please!’

Consultant says Europe is splintered by so many digital radio platforms

If you’re interested in keeping tabs on the international radio industry, developments and trends in Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean are relatively easy to understand. Here in North America, the radio landscape is fairly consistent across the region, with similar regulatory conditions and many independent commercial and non-commercial broadcasters.

Markus Ruoss. In his estimation, the sheer number of standards may actually be leading to delays in widespread adoption of digital radio across Europe. Photo by Daniel Mansergh In Europe, however, the situation is much more complex.

Dozens of countries with significant variations in population and market influence share borders, each adopting their own spectrum plans and deploying new technologies with an eye toward balancing tensions among large public-service broadcasters, large private broadcasters and smaller private and community stations.

According to one longtime observer, this has created a challenging environment for the rollout of digital radio services across the continent, with only limited success in listener adoption after two decades of work and significant investments by both public and private broadcasters.

Markus Ruoss, a media consultant and owner of Radio Sunshine, a private commercial FM station in central Switzerland, has been involved in radio policy and technology issues for decades. As a broadcaster, he has hosted Swiss trials of iBiquity’s HD Radio system and is a strong advocate for the interests of independent private stations in a regulatory structure he feels is dominated by the public operators.

He presented his assessment of Europe’s digital radio progress to the attendees of the Broadcast Engineering Conference at the NAB Show this spring.

Ruoss has a simple message for technology developers interested in providing the next great platform: “No more choices, please!”

Digital buffet

In his estimation, the sheer number of standards may actually be leading to delays in widespread adoption of digital radio across Europe, since the experience of broadcasters and equipment manufacturers has been that any given technology will be competing with a newer, more sophisticated alternative every few years.

Ruoss identifies nearly a dozen technologies available for consideration by European broadcasters and regulators seeking a platform for digital delivery of broadcast programming, ranging from multiple variants of the Eureka-147 DAB standard, to Digital Radio Mondiale’s DRM30 and DRM+ systems, HD Radio and FMeXtra.

He also includes RAVIS, a digital narrowband system proposed by the Russian Federation, as well as Internet-based options and a satellite-based technology from Madrid called Ondas Media, which proposes to launch an S- and L-band satellite radio service for Europe in late 2012.

Ruoss said he believes a significant rethinking of expectations for digital radio is warranted. Rather than trying to find one technology for all broadcasters in each country, he suggests that the choice be made separately for national, regional and local broadcasters, but with a common set of technologies used across the continent.

In Ruoss’ view, the public broadcasters and large national commercial stations should consolidate their national DAB/DAB+/T-DMB multiplex operations, while regional and local broadcasters would use the existing FM band and migrate to digital using HD Radio.

Other European broadcasters have made similar arguments, albeit using DRM+ or DRM30 instead of the iBiquity system.

Ruoss dubbed such a multistandard approach “The Swiss Way of Digitalization.” Switzerland has an established public-service DAB/DAB+ multiplex network in place and a new private DAB+ multiplex network is being rolled out.

At the same time, Ruoss and four other broadcasters have filed a joint application with the Swiss Federal Office of Communications to begin broadcasting HD Radio signals in Argovia, Bern, Basel, Lucerne and Zürich. Pending regulatory approval, they plan to begin operations of the digital service on Sept. 1.

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