After a decade of promise, U.S. terrestrial digital radio is finally here.
Virtually no one can hear it yet.
A small number of stations have begun broadcasting in HD Radio, Ibiquity Digital's trademarked name for the technology. The upcoming NAB2003 convention agenda is salted heavily with sessions that explore HD-R for the benefit of managers and engineers.
Soon consumers will be able to buy radios in order to hear their local terrestrial station broadcasting digitally.
Unknown, though, is how fast stations will adopt the technology, and whether possible changes in radio ownership rules and conflict in Iraq might affect the digital conversion rollout.
Some observers say these issues might make radio advertisers sufficiently nervous to hold back spending, which, in turn, could affect whether stations feel comfortable spending money themselves to convert their plants. Supporters feel ownership and war issues won't affect the HD Radio rollout.
Signing up, signing on
Initial rollout statistics appear positive; most of the major radio groups, having invested money and resources over 10 years to the terrestrial digital radio technology, commit to converting some of stations in key receiver markets this year.
At least 135 stations in more than 40 markets have committed to begin transmitting both analog and digital signals in 2003; Ibiquity predicts about 300 will be on by the end of the year. (See HD Scorecard, page 12.)
According to the FCC, 42 stations were licensed to transmit in analog and digital as of early March. These stations have special temporary authorizations to go HD Radio. Other stations have experimental authorizations to go digital to test certain concepts.
In the weeks prior to the NAB convention, the commission was hoping to simplify its HD Radio notification process. It intends to require that stations notify it within 10 days after turning on a digital signal. Assistant Chief of the Audio Services Division Edward De La Hunt said the FCC expected to issue a notice with further instructions and possibly include a form on its Web site for broadcasters to use.
The initial 135 stations that have committed to go digital have signed licensing agreements with Ibiquity Digital Corp. Under the initial incentive offered by iBiquity, licensing fees for these stations were waived. Stations had to prove they were serious about the intent to convert their stations this year in order to receive the waiver, such as showing an equipment order form to the technology developer.
Ibiquity has another incentive in place. The first 125 commercial stations to enter into a licensing agreement after Feb. 1, 2003, would have their Ibiquity licensing fee capped at $5,000. Further, noncommercial stations that sign on the dotted line with Ibiquity by June 30 would have the fee waived completely.
Incentives are contingent upon the station making its best effort to be on the air with a digital signal by June 30, and continue to broadcast a digital signal until at least Dec. 31 of 2004.
"I think incentives are necessary in order to get broadcasters to provide initial implementation before receivers are on the market," said Charles Morgan of Susquehanna Radio Corp. and chairman of the standards-setting National Radio Systems Committee.
Another source said of the new incentive, "Anything that affects that chicken-and-egg equation is good. Anything that gets it on the air can only be a good thing.
"I liked our deal better," he added, referring to the waiver that was offered to early adopters at the end of last year.
While some RF manufacturers have had compatible or completely new transmission equipment ready for at least a year, receiver makers need to make equipment before the public can hear HD Radio.
Ibiquity is working with at least seven receiver partners and three chipmakers: Texas Instruments, Philips and S.T. Microelectronics. Its manufacturing partners displayed home and in-dash radios and components to consumer electronics retailers in January at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Soon, some of those manufacturers will be ready to take orders from retailers for HD Radios. Kenwood USA is taking the lead in aftermarket radios; it intends to begin taking orders in April and ship HD Radios to stores in June.
"I would like to see stations and local retailers work together on promoting the fact that stations are starting to broadcast in digital," said Bob Law, Kenwood USA senior vice president. Such promotions could include contests with a free radio as a prize, he said.
Kenwood, Ibiquity and some stations are discussing such promotions.
In the store, for example, consumers will be able to hear the audio of local stations broadcasting in digital so potential buyers can hear the difference.
Salespeople can pitch the fact that, unlike satellite radio, HD Radio involves no monthly subscription charge, proponents said.
Part of the flexibility Ibiquity has designed into its system allows broadcasters a choice of how much spectrum they want to devote to programming and what portion they choose to devote to data services, which may be the return on investment some stations seek to justify the initial funding outlay.
Initial data services might include on-demand traffic or weather reports, and eventually interactive features such as a "buy" button on the radio.
For now, Ibiquity has built data specifications into its system so initial receivers can show simple text displays, such as the name of an artist or song. The company has been working with several content partners and the NRSC to develop an open standard so that all possible services would work with Ibiquity's system, stations and receivers.
"We provide the interface ... and the receiver decides how to display the information," said Scott Stull, director of broadcast business development.
Some noncommercial broadcasters plan to test a variation of a data concept for HD Radio technology. Specifically, National Pubic Radio wants to test whether it is feasible for noncommercial stations using the technology to broadcast two programming streams on each station.
NPR, using Harris RF equipment, and Kenwood hope to conduct tests late this summer on KKJZ(FM) in Long Beach, Calif. NPR's Mike Starling, vice president of engineering, hopes the tests could be done in August, a little earlier than previously planned.
Of the initial stations committing to go HD Radio, only one was non-commercial, WUSF(FM), Tampa, Fla.
The IAAIS, representing radio reading services, also hoped to have a computer demo in Ibiquity's booth of a concept in progress, including encrypted reading services in a station's data stream. The IAAIS prefers this solution to eliminate the need for SCA receivers.
Non-coms go HD, too
Last fall, Congress set aside about $4 million for noncommercial radio stations to go digital. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was working on a mechanism in early March to distribute that money to stations that meet certain criteria in the initial markets Ibiquity considers crucial.
While the FCC has outlined how stations may go digital initially, it authorized AMs to do so only in the daytime, on the advice of the NRSC, which has said that not enough is known about the potential for interference with neighboring stations, especially those transmitting on skywaves at night.
Ibiquity had completed additional AM nighttime tests requested by the NRSC in December using WLW in Cincinnati and WOR in New York. The tests were designed to test the impact of AM HD Radio on analog skywave and groundwave signals. Ibiquity hoped to have its report to an ad-hoc committee of the NAB by the time the convention takes place.
"We put the facts on the table, and the industry makes its decision," said Glynn Walden, Ibiquity vice president of broadcast engineering.
In reply to detractors who worry about interference, Ibiquity has said tradeoffs will be required, a point both Ibiquity and the NRSC have emphasized for at least two years.
Part of the problem facing the engineers studying the skywave issue, sources said, is that analog signals sound so bad on skywave, it's hard to tell the difference once a digital signal is added.
Another question to be decided is whether protecting listeners outside a station's contours even matters. Ibiquity and the FCC seem to be focused on protecting a station's signal within its contours, sources said.
Presumably the determining factor in whether interference beyond the contour matters is whether a station attracts sufficient listeners to interest advertisers.
Engineers commenting to the FCC about DAB authorization differ on these points. Glen Clark, for example, has said about 80 percent of AMs could go digital now; while long-time AM stereo advocate Leonard Kahn has taken the position that the technology needs to be studied further. Kahn has urged the commission to stay the initial authorization that allows stations to go digital.
Members of the NRSC, meanwhile, have shifted their focus from system testing to standards-setting to help make recommendations to the FCC for final DAB authorizing rules, expected later this year.
While the commission initially authorized all stations using the HD Radio technology to use their existing antennas, NAB has formed a committee to study other antenna configurations that may help stations save money when implementing the digital technology. The so-called "dual antenna" testing is progressing and will be discussed as part of the Broadcast Engineering Conference.
After a decade of promise, U.S. terrestrial digital radio is finally here.