Digital Radio Broadcasting
Radio is the one technology that has remained fundamentally unchanged for close to a century. But like television, radio is going to make a transition to digital technology in the next years ahead. For the past couple of years Canadians have had the option to pay for a hundred channels of clear digital sound through satellite radio. The same digital sound quality is heading to free terrestrial radio.
Like most new technologies there are two systems competing to become the standard that will be adopted nationwide. A system called Eureka 147 sold using the brand name Digital Audio Broadcasting or DAB is currently in use in Europe and there have been some trial broadcasts in Canada in the past few years. DAB uses a brand new frequency band which hasn’t even been standardized yet, with different countries using different frequency bands for DAB, a DAB radio purchased in one country most likely won’t work in any other country. DAB Trials ended with most who bought DAB radios many stated that areas covered by Digital radio broadcasts being smaller than areas that are covered by traditional analog broadcasts. Some have also stated that DAB broadcasts were also prone to dead spots in urban areas.
The other digital radio system hoping to the standard is called Hybrid Digital or HD Radio from a company called ibiquity. This system is currently in trials in the United States. What sets HD Radio apart from DAB is that HD Radio uses In Band On Channel (IBOC) transmission. The digital signal is transmitted on the same frequency as the analog signal. A traditional analog radio rejects the digital signal as low level interference and an HD Radio receiver recognizes it and switches to digital mode.
DAB would provide more space for more specialized radio formats because of using a new frequency band. HD Radio would be cheaper for broadcasting companies to implement because of the use of existing frequencies eliminating the purchase of radio frequency licenses at government auctions. It may and probably will come that HD radio will be used for existing radio stations to make the transition to digital broadcast and new stations would end up on DAB.
There may not be a lot of incentive for radio broadcasters to make the leap to digital since satellite radio is only used by a very small audience. When radio programmers realize that their competition doesn’t just come from satellite radio but content on portable audio players such as iPods that offer superior sound quality and greater diversity of music and spoken programming then the need for a change to digital will become clear.
Just like previous introductions of new technology it will be early adopters who will pay the highest price. Not just listeners but radio stations too. Those who are the first on the block to have a digital radio will end up paying a lot of money with no digital radio to listen to. Radio stations that are the first to broadcast digital will be sending a signal that very few can listen to. This is the chicken and the egg situation that early adopters faced in the past.
A common complaint with commercial broadcast radio is that play lists are usually pretty bland in attempt to appeal to a mass audience the music played ends up getting played over and over again and doesn’t appeal to anybody. Digital broadcasting has the potential to appeal to special interests so that everybody can find something they like on the radio.