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Canada in Digital Radio Limbo

‘From a transmission standpoint, the band is dying’

OTTAWA, Ontario — Going nowhere: These two words succinctly sum up the state of Canadian digital radio broadcasting, or DRB.

Despite years of offering Eureka-147 DAB simulcasts of AM and FM signals in L-band (1452–1492 MHz) in major metro markets, broadcasters have virtually no listeners and no market profile.

“L-band DAB is in limbo,” said Canadian broadcast technical consultant Wayne Stacey, who has been involved with Canadian DRB for the past 20 years. “In fact, from a transmission standpoint, the band is dying.”

Meanwhile, HD Radio — the iBiquity Digital in-channel, on-band (IBOC) system — has been authorized for experimental FM broadcasts in Canada since 2006.

Yet, despite the willingness of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to fast-track licenses in this format, “not one broadcaster has come to us to request one,” said CRTC Vice Chair Michel Arpin. “Industry Canada, who is in charge of the radio spectrum, has said that they are also willing to set HD Radio standards, but nobody has cared to file a request with them either.”

“AM and FM are technologies decades out of date,” said David Bray; a partner in Hennessy & Bray Communications, which has been heavily involved in Canadian DAB. “Younger listeners are tuning out in significant numbers. Yet broadcasters have been unwilling or unable to agree on a unified course of action. Instead all of their efforts have been directed to protecting their fragile profit margins in the short term. That’s fine if you plan to retire within five years or so. For those planning on a career in the industry beyond that, the future is in peril.”

Why DAB failed

In June 1990, the now-defunct Canadian Association of Broadcasters dazzled delegates at its annual convention in Ottawa, driving them around in a van equipped with a DAB receiver. This was before widespread use of the Internet or satellite radio, at a time when analog services ruled and cellphones were still the size of bricks.

Given its CD-quality sound and reliable coverage, the Eureka-147 DAB signals wowed the delegates and won their backing for taking Canadian radio digital.

With the support of the Canadian government and the broadcasting industry, Canada began to plan and then rollout DAB transmitters in Montreal; Vancouver, British Columbia; Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor, Ontario (across the river from Detroit).

In all cases, the 70-odd stations were licensed to simulcast existing AM and FM program feeds. Original content was frowned upon, both because the broadcasters wanted to move the Canadian public from analog to digital, and also because new services might lead to new competition, disrupting the existing broadcasting apple cart.

Unfortunately, the refusal of receiver manufacturers to supply the Canadian market with low-cost L-band receivers kept the medium from taking off.

“The problem is that Canada’s DRB plans used different spectrum from Europe, where VHF-band DRB receivers were available,” said Arpin. “Once the United States rejected DAB in favor of IBOC, that was it. With only 30 million people, Canada was not large enough to justify the mass-production of DAB receivers that couldn’t be sold elsewhere.”

Add General Motor’s withdrawal from a commitment to installed AM/FM/DAB receivers in its cars, and the die was cast. The signals were there, but no one had the radios to hear them.

(Save Wayne Stacey: “I still listen to CBC’s DAB services in Ottawa, thanks to a DAB card in my computer,” he said.) One last hurdle: Industry Canada is now reviewing its allocation of L-band for DAB. The process, which is due to finish next year, will likely see radio’s share of the band decreased for other services. As a result of this review, Industry Canada stop issuing new DAB technical licenses in 2006, which is also when the CRTC decided to let broadcasters start putting original programming on their DAB channels in a bid to attract listeners.

Today, DAB transmitters at Toronto’s CN Tower and other transmitter sites are beginning to fail due to old age, and when they do die, no one replaces them.

“I know that a few broadcasters have handed back their L-band licenses, rather than buy new equipment,” said Stacey. “CBC Radio has given back theirs in Montréal. The service was taken off for tower renovation, but it is not being restored after the work is done.”

HD Radio?

DAB’s demise was foreseen by the CRTC in 2006, when it reversed its earlier DAB-only policy in favor of allowing HD Radio to be used in Canada as well. HD Radio FM tests conducted in Toronto proved that the digital technology could coexist with analog FM services.

However, Canadian broadcasters are not moving to add HD Radio services, preferring instead to stick with analog AM and FM.

“Broadcasters here still want to see how HD Radio fares in the States, where the rollout has slowed down and issues with AM HD Radio have yet to be fixed,” said Stacey. “… So our broadcasters — already burned by DAB — are understandably reluctant to commit any money to HD Radio, especially in this economy.”

Today, Canadian radio is firmly committed to AM and FM, with no action by either public or private broadcasters to make the permanent jump to digital.

“I have to wonder what the broadcasters are thinking,” said Arpin. “It is now possible to get Internet radio in the car over your iPhone, with access to thousands of stations worldwide. Yet Canadian radio is staying analog! What will they do when GM and Ford start putting wirelessly connected Internet radios in cars?”

“Nothing can be done until Industry Canada decides what will be done with the L-band,” said Stacey. “The whole future of L-band DAB is up in the air.”

Radio World contacted several of Canada’s major broadcasters and requested interviews; none were willing to prove a spokesperson to clarify their digital plans.

What appears clear is that the Canadian radio industry, having invested heavily in Eureka-147 DAB only to see it go nowhere, is adverse to taking such a risk again.

“It’s not an understatement to say that the future of radio in Canada may depend on a viable digital solution,” said Bray. “It is very possible that, by the time they see the light, the power will have been shut off.”