HD Radio in 2014: More Baby Steps—Toward What?

As the year rolled over, a variety of news-bits came out about the state of HD Radio in the United States.
Moving On: HD Radio’s now been around for a quarter-century. The initial development of the in-band, on-channel (IBOC) protocol that constitutes HD broadcasting first began as a science project under the auspices of Westinghouse in 1989. It’s been a long, strange trip since then: overpromising, underdelivering, crash-development, and finally a "workable" protocol. This process has constituted a career for some people—one of whom is now tending greener pastures.
Mike Starling, the co-founder of NPR Labs, retired this month. Starling’s contributions to the technology were instrumental—he helped convince National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support HD Radio before the technology was fully baked. Speaking to Current back in 1992, Starling clearly set out NPR’s position: "Our support for [digital broadcasting] has really been focused on positioning public radio so that we can take advantage of it and participate in it. The only way to compete with those people [i.e., commercial broadcasters] is to become one of them."
In that respect, Starling’s been a key innovator in the HD space: it was NPR Labs that pretty much singlehandedly developed the multicasting feature of FM-HD broadcasting, still considered to be the technology’s primary attraction. The CPB’s support of HD, through tens of millions of dollars of research awards and "digital conversion grants" to member-stations, provided iBiquity Digital Corporation with some much-needed assistance during the company’s formative years. NPR’s also done significant experimentation with other aspects of HD’s functionality, such as surround-sound, the provision of services for the blind, and the all-digital AM-HD system.
HD Radio would not be where it is today without the political, economic, and scientific support of public broadcasters at critical moments throughout its technological and regulatory development. It’ll be interesting to see if Starling’s successor carries the torch. By and large, public broadcasting’s support of HD has been increasingly muted in recent years as NPR Labs invested more time and energy into radio captioning, online streaming, and data visualization.
Fun With Numbers: iBiquity Digital had a presence at the Consumer Electronics Show, now wrapping up in Las Vegas. It opened the show with a spew of statistics that seemed impressive on first glance: HD Radio listening in automotives totaled some three billion hours in 2013, with a listening audience for FM-HD multicast channels now estimated to be four million every week; there’s now some level of HD buy-in from every major automaker; and claims of inroads made toward HD becoming "a North American standard" for digital radio broadcasting. But upon further inspection, these claims deflate.
Three billion listening hours sounds impressive, until you consider that the average American (aged 12+) spends more than 14 hours per week listening to radio. With 242 million radio listeners in the United States; that works out to more than 176 billion hours of radio listening in a year. Of which HD Radio’s share is 1.7%—and when you factor in HD listening outside of the car, the share does not budge from the single-digits.
Four million multicast listeners sounds impressive—again just 1.7% of the total U.S. radio listening audience. Further complicating matters, iBiquity includes those listening to multicast programming on analog FM translators; there’s been an explosion of translators deployed as FM-HD simulcast-nodes over the last several years, which suggests that the majority of this listening actually occurs on radio’s legacy analog platform.
Getting every major auto manufacturer to adopt HD Radio in some shape or form is a nice milestone, and the most symbolically relevant. It’s 2014: after 12 years on the air, it’s about time that every automaker includes it. The kicker is that not every one includes it as universally standard equipment—and without a foothold in the most popular makes and models, across all option levels, HD’s position in the dashboard remains a marginal one.
With the growth of in-vehicle broadband connectivity far surpassing HD Radio uptake, iBiquity’s play to focus almost exclusively on the automotive market is a significant gamble—but can it pay off? Vehicles now account more than 85% of HD Radio’s receiver base, and the company expects to sell more than 5 million radios (most of them as part of car purchases) in 2014, bringing the total installed base to more than 22 million—or 3% of all radio receivers in the U.S.
Finally, the claim of HD Radio becoming a de facto standard for North America is sheer whoppery worth exploring in more detail. Mexico endorsed HD in 2011, but like the United States made broadcaster adoption voluntary. Since then, 36 stations—or about 3%—have adopted HD, reaching some 25% of all Mexican radio listeners. It’s important to note here that reach does not equal listening: it just means HD signals are available for them to tune in.
In Canada, a lone FM station in Toronto has adopted HD, while a Canadian conglomerate is testing the datacast-function of FM-HD, mostly to provide continuity for drivers using it for traffic-navigation services along the Canadian-U.S. border. Canada’s history with digital radio is a tortured one: the country first adopted, then abandoned, the European DAB standard. This sparked a brief affair with HD Radio back in the late ’00s which effectively disintegrated in 2010. The previous position of Canadian broadcasters and regulators on HD Radio is one of passivity: better to wait and see how it fares in its home country. Will these baby steps change their mind? Apparently, it’s fared well enough to potentially entice Canada into the fold.
Future Growth: There are three areas to watch for future HD advancement in 2014. The first is within the automobile. Although the technology’s making slow but steady progress, the place of radio within the glass dashboard is a moving target. Every automaker has their own "infotainment" interface design, in which radio occupies no standard position. Emmis Communications is hoping to change that by developing a "companion" application to its NextRadio app, currently deployed on certain models of Sprint smartphones and available as a stand-alone download for Android devices. People are becoming increasingly used to navigating to an app to consume content; if NextRadio can be positioned as the de facto "radio" button across all glass dashboards, that will add a much-needed element of harmony and stability to radio’s overall position there.
No smartphone is yet equipped with HD reception functionality, but any further growth of the NextRadio app in smartphones will only help it in the long run, should such technology become available. Sprint has since added the app to phones carried by its resellers such as Boost and Virgin. Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan says "consumer demand…will make other carriers want to do this," but that remains to be seen.
So far, some 100,000 people have downloaded NextRadio for their Android devices since it launched in August. For comparison, broadcast-stream aggregator TuneIn claims a listener base of 40 million, while pure-play Pandora claims more than 70 million regular users. Clearly, there’s a lot of room for growth—and much like HD Radio itself, current growth is infinitesimal relative to other meaningful competitors. Emmis’ Smulyan recently noted that he’s having some trouble getting some broadcasters to pony up their part of the $15 million in free commercial time that the industry promised Sprint this year for enabling FM chips in smartphones. Smulyan plays this off as a logistical issue, but what does it say about the industry’s capacity to entice the likes of AT&T or Verizon into the NextRadio family?
The only expected movement on the broadcaster-side will involve additional testing of the all-digital AM-HD system. The first round of public comments on the FCC’s AM Revitalization Initiative are due later this month, and it will be interesting to see just whether or not HD proponents take the opportunity to use this initiative to advance a call for unleashing all-digital AM broadcasts.
As of today, just 44 comments have been filed in the proposal for rulemaking. None of them are from major constituents (who typically file on or very near the comment-deadline), but several independent broadcasters and engineers have mentioned the need to "revisit" radio’s digital transition—including opening up the option to experiment with other systems, such as Digital Radio Mondiale.
As the future of digital radio broadcasting unfolds throughout 2014, it’s important to be a realist about its prospects. Far from the unmitigated failure depicted by its harshest critics, the sum of its successes to date ain’t exactly inspiring, either. Should make for an interesting year.