| Digital success
The experience of digital radio so
far in the Canada, the UK, and the US provides a good example of
the way regulation can impact on the success of a technology, in
this case from negatively to positively with an unknown so far.
Indeed without too much straying into a phrase four the sake of
it, we could term developments a case of The Good, The Bad and the
Ugly. So let's look at them- but in a different order to end on
a positive note.
Canada is an example of the negative since
although the state broadcaster has taken up digital broadcasting
so far there has been little enthusiasm in the commercial
sector and those companies who have taken the plunge have
so far spent considerable amount with little return and the
public have gained little extra in terms of available channels.
The reason? The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications
Commission (CRTC) decided that digital signals should be simulcast
on analogue, either AM or FM, thus meaning that digital stations,
instead of expanding the range of signals available and targeting
new niche audiences, had to stick mainly to the existing tried
and tested output that their owners already broadcast on analogue.
In its early plans some eight years ago, the Commission endorsed
the Department of Industry plan to allocate spectrum in the
digital radio band to each existing AM and FM radio undertaking
and, although it did consider diversity and add that "existing
radio services should have priority access, but not exclusive
access, to the digital radio band", it effectively concentrated
on making digital a replacement for existing analogue services.
It then compounded the error in practical terms by deciding
that "In the case of an Experimental Digital Radio service
operated by an existing AM or FM radio licensee, it would
be a requirement that all programming on the Experimental
Digital Radio service be a simulcast of the programming broadcast
on the associated AM or FM radio undertaking, with the exception
of up to two hours per week of separate programming."
(RNW note -following comment on its
proposals the Commission extended this period to 14 hours
a week of separate programming which in our view was a waste
of effort since at the most a station could either have a
short slot a day or a day of the week to show what extra it
could do and neither of these would make it worthwhile to
develop new niche services).
To make things even worse the commission proposed that, "during
the short term, Experimental Digital Radio undertakings be
prohibited from using the ancillary capacity of the spectrum
allotted to them to provide a programming service. "
This might well have been welcomed by existing licensees at
the time - it seemed to protect their position, after all
-- but they were being shortsighted and unimaginative since
the effect was to leave digital without any compelling plus
factor for an audience apart from an improvement over technical
quality plus some extras in terms of screen display information
that would not enough in itself to tempt most people even
if receivers were fairly cheap. They weren't and the Catch
22 factor then came in meaning that manufacturers would not
invest in mass production without a mass audience but without
them prices would remain too high.
A bad decision that we suspect was made largely through too
much attention to what was than to what might be possible.
Enough of the bad though!. What about the ugly?
In terms of using the medium of digital to expand opportunities,
the US option is one that we have increasingly come to see as
the ugly, tempered only by the introduction of satellite radio
services that are offering new and different programming. The
reason? It seems to us that the concern was biased far too much
towards satisfying existing licensees and their commercial interests
rather than using the opportunity to expand real choice to US
The US has opted for a system that uses part of the existing analogue
signal to carry a digital stream - more of the Canadian approach
but with less of the technical quality benefit.
In addition the main motivation-understandably in the context
- of US radio companies seems to be that digital's main benefit
is that it provides via the text screen more opportunities to
sell things rather than that it could provide more and different
programming with an associated improvement in technical quality.
The satellite companies provide the latter -and we'd like to see
some high quality assessments of how its quality compares with
that from Ibiquity's in-band on-channel digital approach - together
with more choice and considerable freedom from the overblown diet
of adverts required on most US commercial stations to repay the
high prices that licences ( a lease on public spectrum) now command.
All in all a wasted opportunity that in our view seems to have
been motivated by bean-counters calculations rather than any other
In the end we can't really whip up any enthusiasm for the system:
its benefits are much less than could have been achieved and we
rather feel that the best thing that could happen in the US would
be the development of other technologies such as software radio
with minimal regulatory restrictions and costs that could effectively
allow many new entrants to serve new audiences with something
We're also concerned that the current benefits that a traveler
gains from the universality of analogue services - a fairly inexpensive
portable AM/FM/short wave receiver can get services almost anywhere
in the world - and that will be lost in the US as far as digital
is concerned since its system is out of step with the rest of
the world. So from a selfish point of view, we've more interest
in the failure for the benefit of the world of iBiquity's system
than in its success for the rather limited benefits it will offer
in the US.
Add in the fact that we suspect the vested interests of current
US media empires will do their best, as they did with low power
FM, to prevent developments of technologies that would genuinely
pull in new competing services and we conclude the description
Ugly may well be justified as a description of US digital radio
plans although we'll be pleased if we are proven wrong.
Rather to our surprise, the UK approach seems
to have been the most productive, albeit some of its strength
comes from the existence of the BBC, an existence that many
current media interests would like curbed or even, though
they are not generally honest enough to go public this far,
It provides a spur for commercial radio to do some things
differently and in some cases serves niche audiences with
parts of its service that has led commercial interests to
spot opportunities for themselves.
Whatever the effect of adding the BBC to the equation, the
policy of carrot rather than stick for commercial operators
has worked. If they provide a digital service they are guaranteed
an analogue renewal and this has kept them onboard during
the difficult years when it might have seemed to the fainthearted
that digital radio wasn't going to catch on.
Three years ago we commented (RNW
Comment October 2000):"The current downside is
of course the cost of the receivers, which will have to come
down dramatically for mass take-up unless the commercial lobbyists
succeed in getting AM and FM closed down!"
We still don't really think that what we think off as the
non-radio extras that digital offers as being that valuable
or enticing (RNW Comment
November 2000) but we do appreciate the combination
of technical quality and new services that the British system
has now delivered.
The commercial calls for the ending analogue as a boost to
digital seem to have died down as digital has become more
popular because of the massive reduction in DAB receiver prices
allied with the availability of digital radio on digital TV
services in the UK.
In terms of value, as we reported this month (See
RNW Aug 9)
is already accounting for around half the sales by one major
UK electrical goods chain and this in turn is spurring the
development of more receivers by manufacturers.
Only a few years ago, DAB cost GBP 500 or so and could receive
comparatively limited services; now, both home and portable
receivers are available from around GBP 100 upwards and there
are a number of worthy new services.
We think the system knocks spots off the other options available
in major English-speaking countries and can only hope that
it's a model that is followed elsewhere; Canada, had it the
will, could move towards it without technological change and
it would seem a better way for Australia to go than the US
Eureka !(147) as was once said.
What you think? Please E-mail