FM-in-Smartphones Effort Goes Global

A consortium of broadcasters, including the The European Broadcast Union, the BBC, and several commercial broadcasters in the U.S., U.K, and Australia have launched the “Universal Smartphone Radio Project,” a campaign to lobby for building radio reception into smartphones. Sales of stand-alone radio receivers (both analog and digital) have been in steady decline for the last decade, and as media consumption-time shifts to mobile devices, radio broadcasters have found themselves by and large not in the mix.
The fix for this is what is now being called “hybrid radio,” defined as a radio signal plus a mobile data connection to provide enhanced content beyond audio and some interactivity. In the EU, this effort is being led by RadioDNS; in the States, it’s NextRadio. The campaign’s been in the talking stages since at least February and covered extensively in a presentation to the EBU in July.
Also involved in the project is iBiquity Digital Corporation; Radio World presumes that the project’s ultimate end-goal is multi-modal adoption for smartphones that could receive analog FM, DAB/DAB+ (European-standard) digital radio, and HD Radio.
There are a couple of potential wrinkles in such a collaboration. The first is the cost of the HD receiver componentry. One of the guys at the HD Radio booth in Indianapolis last month told me that iBiquity makes around $6-12 per receiver sold. This is because of iBiquity’s closed intellectual property premium, and it makes adding HD reception to a receiver extremely expensive relative to adding analog FM or DAB/DAB+ functionality (a fractional cost). Mobile device manufacturers are especially sensitive to such costs.
At the Radio Show, I asked Glynn Walden—the broadcast engineering-father of the HD Radio system—what he would do differently if he could go back and do it all over again. He said “going it alone” on the development of HD receiver chips would be it, as a lack of early buy-in from semiconductor manufacturers retarded their development. As it presently stands, the reported power drain of HD receiver chips remains a hurdle to minituarizing them for mobile devices, though a prototype smartphone has been demoed.
Of course, the U.S. radio industry still needs to be convinced that hybrid radio is the future, and that they should embrace it. Only recently has the industry realized that some sort of app-unanimity is probably a good idea, and while NextRadio was designed with HD compatibility in mind, there’s no sign that stations see the value of upgrading their transmission infrastructure to better serve an app. There’s also some irony in the fact that AM radio—the only space where discernible HD experimentation is occurring—is not included in the Universal Smartphone’s remit, even though at least one company has developed an integrated chip that covers it (and Digital Radio Mondiale, too).
It’s silly that in 2014 analog FM reception is not already a standard feature in smartphones. Most already have an integrated chip for wi-fi and Bluetooth that also contains the capability for FM rececption, but many device manufacturers and wireless carriers choose not to enable that feature. It will be interesting to see if any substantive collaboration follows this announcement. Any effort that advances radio’s formal integration into mobile device platforms is a step in the right direction.