Digital Radio Wobbles Around the World

Last month, I attended an exploratory workshop hosted by the European Science Foundation about the prospects of community media in a digitally-convergent communications environment. Not surprisingly, when one thinks “community media,” radio first comes to mind, and we represented in full: most of the 30 invitees to this workshop were either involved in radio activism and/or regulation in their respective home countries.
My personal mission was to warn as many other countries away from casting their fates with iBiquity’s HD Radio platform, as it not only carries a plethora of technical risks, but it may decimate community radio stations as we know them (draft, not for publication). Fortunately, this was an easy job: the Europeans can see through the snake-oil that is HD Radio, and the general consensus of the workshop was that HD should be opposed at every step.
However, this is not stopping iBiquity from trying to break into international markets: the company’s received permission from the Mexican government to deploy HD-capable transmitters along the U.S. border (essentially for those Mexican stations that actually serve U.S. listeners); “experimental” FM-HD transmitters have been installed in France and The Philippines; and other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, have actually conducted in-depth field tests of the HD Radio protocol. This even though some of these countries have already adopted digital radio transition plans, all of which use a much different digital transmission protocol than iBiquity’s proprietary system.
So why is HD seeing the light of day overseas? There are a few major reasons. The first is that many countries, such as the newest (and aspiring) members of the European Union, like Slovenia and Macedonia, do not yet have formal digital radio transition policies in effect. iBiquity sees these as ripe markets, where the “no-pain, some-gain” mantra of HD’s biggest selling-point may sway the less-informed.
Secondly, iBiquity may attempt to leverage international trade law (which has been primarily to reflect U.S. interests) in order to force countries to consider and/or adopt the HD standard as part of the benefits of globalization. The decision on whether or not a country adopts a new digital broadcast standard is made essentially by government fiat. iBiquity, I believe, hopes to get its foot in the door in other countries in order to turn to those nations which have not yet committed to a digital radio transition and say, “Hey, you can’t exclude our standard from consideration. If you do, we’ll consider your transition-plan a violation of international ‘free-trade’ laws (presumably suggesting that the selection of a feasible, non-HD DAB infrastructure would constitute some sort of illegal ‘government subsidy’) and haul your ass in front of the World Trade Organization for damages.”
Such a threat may be enough to entice developing countries to at least give iBiquity a hearing; it is certainly a possible way for iBiquity to raise the funds it desperately needs to stay in business, even if it doesn’t further the technology’s adoption. And it most definitely may be a tactic U.S. trade negotiators could consider: iBiquity is a wholly-owned U.S. corporate interest, and what’s good for U.S. business is good for the country, after all.
But perhaps the most important thing I learned at the Budapest workshop is that many established countries, which settled upon digital radio transition plans many years before the U.S. did, are now rethinking their own initiatives. The problem is not inherent to any specific technology; it’s due to the fact that no digital radio protocol exists which does things that citizen-consumers see as important enough to upgrade their receivers for. Although most “first-world” nations have already committed to a non-HD DAB rollout, many of them are finding it a tough go: DAB-compatible receiver sales are flat, and those who operate the DAB transmission networks in these countries are not providing a diversity and quality of programming which sets DAB apart from traditional analog radio services to entice listenership.
For example, many countries are reconsidering their entire DAB strategies; Germany, for one, has decided to abandon its original DAB technological platform and is now openly considering alternatives. And although HD is but one of several alternative DAB technologies now available, they all suffer from a common flaw.
That flaw is relatively simple: no digital radio technology has proven itself to be a worthy replacement to analog radio service. Every DAB proponent has promised increased program diversity and higher audio fidelity; these are promises that have not been fully borne out in practice. Every DAB transmission protocol has run into some real-world technical difficulties which inhibit its quality of service. In addition, digital-capable receivers remain much more expensive than analog-only models. And the promises of “new uses for radio,” such as datacasting, are not catching fire as DAB proponents had hoped.
This raises two very important questions: is radio even ready to go digital? If so, what is the compelling reason? Broadcasters look at developments such as wireless broadband access, satellite radio, and portable music devices as the killers of their present business-models. If people can receive a larger range of more compelling audio content from services and devices other than their local radio stations, then what value do those stations actually have? And if radio stations begin to devote their spectral allocation to the provision of services other than freely-available audio content, have they forfeited their primary reason for being?
It’s quite a conundrum. If radio stations go digital, do they stick with being audio providers, or do they branch out into the provision of other services? And if they choose the latter, should we still call them radio stations? In this context, radio’s digitalization calls the entire medium’s identity into question. And this is a global phenomenon, irrespective of the DAB technology at hand.
The ESF workshop organizers will be publishing a “scientific report” on our findings within the next month or so. It should make for interesting reading.