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Is EPG on a Fast Road for Radio?

EPG on HD Radio started with an NAB project called FASTROAD, or Flexible Advanced Services for Television & Radio on All Devices. The NAB signed a contract with BIA Financial Network Inc. and its partner Broadcast Signal Lab to create a practical system for an electronic program guide for local broadcasters in the United States.

What the heck is an EPG for radio? When will such an electronic program guide be available? Will it generate consumer excitement? Could it become yet another regulatory requirement for broadcasters?

(click thumbnail)Signal flow for an EPG system at a single station is likely to look something like this. Courtesy Rick Ducey, BIAfn
These are just a few of the questions that will be answered, or at least discussed, during the NAB Radio Show at a Friday session titled “The HD Radio EPG Project.”

EPG on HD Radio started with an NAB project called FASTROAD, or Flexible Advanced Services for Television & Radio on All Devices. The NAB signed a contract with BIA Financial Network Inc. and its partner Broadcast Signal Lab to create a practical system for an electronic program guide for local broadcasters in the United States.

As with any new technology, not everyone thinks EPG has a future in radio.

“Broadcasters at first blush often were not supportive of the concept of a market-level guide to radio stations,” said Rick Ducey, chief strategy officer for BIAfn.

(click thumbnail)A market-wide implementation of EPG will involve multiple stations and various means of retrieving the information. Courtesy Nick Banks, Unique Interactive
“However, when compared to the playing field set by satellite and Internet radio, it seemed clearer that an HD Radio EPG would help level the field.”

Meeting the bar

The first step in the project started by BIAfn and BSL was to interview executives in the broadcast, consumer electronics and technology sectors.

“We played out a scenario of HD multicasting and the day when there will be two, three or even four times as many ‘radio stations’ on the dial. That gets confusing for listeners to navigate without a guide,” Ducey said.

Then there’s the competition from satellite and Internet radio, which are raising expectations for what can be provided by radio broadcasters.

“In a digital media environment that’s full of user interactivity, metadata, search, content-on-demand and time-shifting, local radio stations are not meeting the bar set by the competition,” he said. “We really see that an EPG service goes a long way to add to local radio’s competitiveness.”

(click thumbnail)These images of a typical ENG-capable digital radio display are based loosely on a DAB European receiver; they demonstrate how EPG might work. The first shows the typical state of a radio that has detected an EPG data feed but is still showing the display text (RadioText) associated with the audio stream — in this case, an ad for an imaginary pizza parlor. The second is the display when the EPG button is pressed, showing EPG info for the current station on the current day. The third provides more information on the particular show highlighted in the previous image. The last offers choices the user can make for the selected program.
Ducey said the interviews generated considerable positive energy for EPG, with many broadcasters seeing how a program guide can add value to their signal. However, there are real-world constraints, starting with bandwidth.

“Broadcasters told us that something on the order of 1 kbps would be a comfortable data rate,” Ducey said. “That’s okay, particularly if data can be trickled on a full-time basis with prioritized packets for more current information.”

Unique Interactive, a British company, developed an EPG technology for the Eureka-147 DAB digital radio system used in the United Kingdom. The company has been consulted for the NAB FASTROAD project and is described by the participants as a key member of the EPG development team.

BIAfn’s primary partner on the EPG project is Broadcast Signal Lab, which has experience in radio broadcasting and HD Radio technology. David Maxson, managing partner for BSL, is the author of “The IBOC Handbook: Understanding HD Radio Technology,” a technical guide on the principles of HD Radio broadcasting.

Maxson said the experience with EPGs in the U.K. is helpful but the landscape of U.S. radio broadcasting presents challenges not seen there.

“Much of what EPG does on DAB can be applied, carefully, to EPG here,” he said. “One key difference is that the DAB technique of transmitting a consolidated EPG for a dozen or more audio channels on a single set of DAB transmitters will not work the same in the U.S.”

The sheer physical size of the country and the number of radio stations create a complexity at which the U.K. system only hints.

“Our stations are so geographically diverse, even within a given radio market, that a consolidated market-wide EPG would be large, and will contain stations that some listeners cannot receive,” Maxson said, “and would overlook stations in adjacent markets that many listeners can receive.” (See sidebar.)
What’s in a Market? Variation Across a Single CityBroadcast Signal Lab conducted tests to determine how many AM and FM stations were receivable at each of 25 locations within 40 miles of the Boston market. BSL researchers used the “scan” button on a receiver and counted the number of stations at which the scan stopped.

Depending on the receiver’s location, there were substantial differences in the lists of stations that could be received. This is due in part to having overlapping coverage from stations in the adjacent markets, and from the availability of lower-powered stations within the market that do not cover the entire market.

First, a listening point in the market center was used as a reference to identify all the stations that could be received at the reference location. Then all other locations were compared to the results at the reference point.

A count was made of the stations received at each location that were also received at the reference location (called “Matching”). The stations received at the reference but not received at a test location were counted and called “Missing.” Finally, each test location received new stations that were not heard at the reference point. These are called “Extra.”

For all 25 sites, the Matching, Missing and Extra stations were tabulated and combined statistically. Shown is a table with the results for the commercial portion of the FM band (the same thing was done on the AM and non-commercial FM bands, not shown here).

At the reference point, 27 commercial FM stations were captured in the scan. At the 25 test sites, there were an average of 17 Matching stations and 10 Missing stations. The 25 sites had an average of 14 Extra stations not received at the reference point.

This study revealed that conventional thinking about providing an EPG for each “market” may not be the most effective way to provide listeners with a full EPG relevant to where they are located. There may be too much unnecessary information and too much missing information for the listener in a one-EPG-per-market model.

— Based on information provided by David Maxson

AverageStandard DeviationMaximumMinimumMatching17.03.424.011.0Missing9.83.416.03.0Extra14.06.927.03.0

Early objectives

The FASTROAD project hasn’t gotten far enough since its inception in February to develop actual software that would be used for EPG creation.

However, the project team feels it has a great advantage since one of its members, Unique Interactive, has commercially deployed EPG software and services in use by U.K. broadcasters and others around the world using the DAB system.

So although the HD Radio system and U.S. broadcast radio environment have different requirements from the DAB market, the participants have a good idea what the process and equipment must do to be effective and affordable.

In addition, Maxson expects that future HD Radio software releases from Ibiquity will support EPG transmission.

“On the transmission side, it will be quite simple to add EPG to an HD Radio transmission,” Maxson said. “Operationally, some software will be necessary to aggregate, organize and send the EPG data to the HD Radio Importer, and stations will have to allocate a minimal amount of time to setting up the EPG and keeping it current.”

One of the goals of this project is to develop an approach that minimizes the workload on station staff. Taking a lesson from the U.K. EPG model and from other broadcast data services, Maxson said there is a role for a service bureau that can provide stations with as much or as little support in publishing their EPGs as they require.

Ducey will moderate the panel at the NAB Radio Show. He expects to report on Phase 1, which will include the successful completion of these four objectives:

  1. Develop a business requirements document;
  2. Create an EPG overview specification;
  3. Recommend a field test market; and
  4. Develop reference architecture specifying a practical and market-oriented EPG system.

According to Ducey, Phase 2 work will begin according to NAB FASTROAD’s timetable and is planned to include computer and lab testing, then a field trial in a test market. He expects this work will begin soon. FASTROAD’s requirement is that the eventual solution be compatible with Ibiquity’s HD Radio technology.

“Happily, we’ve established a very productive relationship with Ibiquity,” Ducey said.

Television has had EPG capabilities for years, with cable TV and satellite providers creating an on-screen grid of the programs available on their services. Radio has had a taste of some EPG-like capabilities with HD Radio, where stations identify songs, artists, programs and even commercials on radios’ alphanumeric displays.

EPG for HD Radio should take that to the next level, a future that may be upon us as soon as 2009.

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