Shortwave Awaits DRM in United States

U.S. shortwave broadcasters anticipate the availability of the first low-cost Digital Radio Mondiale receiver by the end of the year, though no DRM transmissions are originating yet in the United States, despite FCC approval.
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ELKHART, Ind. U.S. shortwave broadcasters anticipate the availability of the first low-cost Digital Radio Mondiale receiver by the end of the year, though no DRM transmissions are originating yet in the United States, despite FCC approval.

China may begin DRM transmissions in time for the 2008 Olympics, spurring a global receiver launch and shortwave broadcasters from the U.S., and other countries would like to use DRM on the 26 MHz band for low-powered local FM-quality broadcasting.

These were the highlights of the U.S. DRM Group meeting, which was held in May in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters.

Broadcasters, manufacturers and others interested in the progress of DRM in North America gathered for their fourth annual meeting, held at the HCJB Global Technology Center in Elkhart, Ind.

About 60 persons attended the meeting, which included program producers, station managers, network operators, marketing people, shortwave listeners and consultants.

DRM sends text, graphics

“This is our big opportunity,” said Mike Adams, chairman of U.S. DRM’s International Broadcasters Committee, “to get together each year and find out what’s going on with DRM in North America.” Adams is an engineer who monitors new technologies for Far East Broadcasting Company, a worldwide religious broadcasting network.


(click thumbnail)FEBC’s Mike Adams, TDF’s Michel Penneroux and Continental’s Don Spragg lead a discussion about DRM’s future in North America.Herb Jacobson of HCJB began the meeting with a detailed explanation of the basics of DRM — its advantages to broadcasters and how it works. He explained which popular shortwave transmitters are easy to convert to DRM modulation and which ones are more difficult.

Don Spragg, formerly of HCJB and now working for Continental Electronics — which, along with other U.S. manufacturers Nautel, BE and Harris, sells DRM transmitters — explained that shortwave broadcasters were really behind the origins of DRM because they wanted a system to enable them to go digital.

DRM officially was launched in 2003 and it has expanded to AM, longwave and now FM use as well.

Spragg said that DRM technology enables broadcasters to transmit in various grades of audio and can carry up to four programs simultaneously in one channel. DRM can be used to transmit voice, music, text, graphics, slide shows and multiple languages. There are currently 766 hours per day of DRM transmissions, according to the DRM Consortium.

Most, but not all, of these transmissions are in Europe, including those from Deutsche Telekom’s T-Systems, which attended the meeting in Elkhart. In the Americas, there are DRM transmissions from CBC Radio-Canada in Sackville, New Brunswick; Telediffusion de France in French Guiana, HCJB in Quito, Ecuador; Radio Netherlands in Bonaire; and Christian Vision from Chile.

All of these facilities except Bonaire conducted special DRM transmissions during the U.S. DRM meeting, and the monitoring station in Elkhart was able to pick them all up with excellent reception. The audio was FM mono quality.

There was also a special trans-Atlantic DRM test during the meeting from Vatican Radio. The Vatican organ music and special conference ID’s were heard with excellent quality and a 21–27 dB signal-to-noise ratio. Transmission power levels ranged from four kilowatts from Quito up to 250 kW from Vatican Radio.

Receiver timeline fluid

“DRM has much to offer,” concluded Spragg. “It’s an exciting time. DRM has an important place, especially if we’re going to see a revival of the shortwave broadcasting spectrum.”

The current problem with DRM is that consumer-friendly receivers are not yet available in North America. A few early receivers are now on the market in Europe for as little as 200 euros, or about $270; but improved versions are still being developed and have yet to hit the store shelves.

For some time now, it has been possible to use certain shortwave receivers connected to a personal computer with special DRM software to listen to DRM transmissions. However, the goal is to have stand-alone receivers that can pick up DRM signals without the need to connect them to PCs. Recently, a few of these types of radios have been released on the market in a small scale in Europe, even as modifications and improvements continue to be made.

Michel Penneroux, chairman of the DRM Consortium’s Commercial Committee, said, “The problem is in this kind of situation, the timelines of the various players are different from one to the other. The broadcasters have one timeline. The transmitter industry has another. The receiver industry has [yet another]. So you wait until the retailers say ‘We want this because the customers are interested in this.’”

So far retailers like RadioShack have not yet shown much interest in selling DRM receivers. “The numbers [they need] are very big,” said Penneroux, “with 2.5 billion receivers to renew worldwide. Manufacturers are very secretive about what they want to do, what are their plans, when they’re going to launch. This is the reality.”

Some participants at the meeting said that there may also be a role for DRM in AM broadcasting in the United States, given the controversy over problems with IBOC at night. They speculated that combined DRM/HD Radio receivers might be on the horizon.

“We are building a digital radio world for the next 20 years,” said Penneroux. “We are expecting by around the end of this year the first low-cost DRM receiver with an ST chipset. The receiver will be made in China, will cost less than 50 U.S. dollars, and will have a high-quality front-end.”

2008 Olympics

In fact, China may be where the big global DRM boom begins.

The Chinese appear to be moving toward domestic DRM transmissions in time for the 2008 Olympics, which would mean massive production of DRM receivers that would be available to both the internal and worldwide markets at low cost.

Several U.S.-based and European shortwave broadcasters plan to begin DRM transmissions to China in time for the Olympics.

There is also a great deal of interest in the United States and other countries in using DRM on the 26 MHz band for low-powered local FM-quality broadcasting.

Participants in the meeting in Elkhart acknowledged that this would involve regulatory hurdles, since the 26 MHz band is allocated to long-distance international broadcasting. But the High Frequency Coordinating Conference, where most shortwave frequency planning is done worldwide, recently proposed a division of the band, with one portion to be used for international broadcasting and the other part for local DRM broadcasts.

So far no shortwave stations have begun DRM broadcasts from U.S. soil, however the FCC has approved it and many stations are watching the development of DRM and the receiver market.

No one wants to lose their current analog audience, but the concept of transmitting on shortwave with an FM-quality signal and reducing their electrical bills to a fraction of their current levels has most U.S. international broadcasters keeping a close eye on DRM.

Jeff White is general manager of WRMI - Radio Miami International in addition to his roles with the U.S. DRM Group and NASB.

RW welcomes letters to this editor on this or any article. Write to radioworld@imaspub.com.

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