November 2002
IBOC - a step forward or sideways?

IBOC - a step forwards or sideways?

Indubitably when John Logie Baird first demonstrated television in 1926, it was a step forward: Equally indubitably, compared the the systems that followed, based on the work of Philo T Farnsworth, to have stuck with developing his system would have given a much inferor output.

In pure engineering terms, we would say the same is true of IBOC(iBiquity's in-band, on channel system using the same frequencies as existing stations as compared to the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB or Eureka 147) that the rest of the world has generally adopted in preference to the iBiquity system now going ahead in the US.

The question thus arises as to whether the US move is really a step forward or ultimately will prove to be a blind alley?

For example VHS recordings were inferior to betamax technically, but in terms of a lot of US reception they were an improvement on what many viewers already had and worldwide the difference was not great enough to overcome the advantages established by VHS in terms of a consumer base.

The same is also true of the US NTSC television system compared to the European systems, PAL and SECAM, that were subsequently developed.

Is the same true of IBOC or will the US stand aside from the rest of the world in introducing IBOC and ultimately either dump it because new technology is developed that supersedes it or find DAB better to the extent that it regrets having gone for IBOC.

The background to the decision.

IBOC was not, of course, adopted in isolation; indeed the US National Association of Broadcasters at first favoured DAB but that meant new frequencies had to be released for it and existing holders of the spectrum, in this case primarily the US military, didn't want to give them up.

IBOC, therefore was a compromise to begin with.

DAB was recognized as providing a route to significantly more than IBOC but it would have had knock-on effects in terms of moving others from frequencies they had been allocated to make space for it and could also have have been to the detriment of existing broadcasters who would have found more competitors on their patch.

All in all, IBOC is a pretty good deal for existing interests, providing listeners can be persuaded to take it up.

Are other routes possible for the US?

There are, of course, ways round all the objections to allocating new frequencies for DAB. Indeed we suspect some of them will be brought into effect as far as military-held frequencies are concerned when technology looks as if it may be able both to deliver a lot more money through mobile communications than broadcasters will ever pay for spectrum and at the same time meet most of the military's requirements.

As far as the broadcasters' objections are concerned there are also ways round should a society wish to take them. The UK, for example, encouraged broadcasters to push into digital by guaranteeing renewal of their analogue licences if they provided a suitable digital service.

In the US, of course, commercial broadcasters, able to sell their properties for millions on the basis of frequencies allocated to them years ago, work on the basis that they have bought this formerly public property rather than leased it. (Their belief in the free market would, we suspect, have been sorely tested should an American Margaret Thatcher have proposed a system in which renewals were periodic and associated with an auction of spectrum like the auction of UK TV licences she introduced.)

However the practicalities exist, and sufficient US politicians have been bought or rented to rule out major changes. Thus the only factors that will ultimately determine IBOC's fate are not those of the listener's benefit but the economic implications of what other use might be made of the spectrum allied with consumer decisions about what they are prepared to spend on equipment, and, possibly, even more important, further technological developments.

If, for example, the claims of Motorola about the way its software can improve reception of the existing analogue systems via conversion to a digital form in a receiver allied with software processing (See RNW Oct. 3) prove to be correct , then what is the real benefit of IBOC?

It seems to us, that they become very limited in terms of data that anyone would want, never mind pay for, and not necessarily much, if anything at all, in terms of audio quality for a listener.

Similarly, if the concept of "cognitive radio" is sufficiently developed and delivers all it promises (See RNW Oct. 28), then all bets may be off as far as DAB, IBOC and existing AM and FM technologies are concerned.

The British experience - any lessons for the US?

It is impossible at this stage to make anything other than inspired guesses as to how far US consumers will be prepared to pay for new receivers for IBOC signals without significant reporting by early adopters that is favourably about the benefits of IBOC and also how far, even in this scenario, most people could be swayed by the promise of a cheaper Motorola route should this deliver nearly as much as IBOC.

It may therefore be beneficial to look at the DAB experience elsewhere in the world and in this case, the UK is probably going to provide as good a test-bed as any.

Digital take-up has been slow, as elsewhere, and the broadcast industry, particularly that of TV broadcasters, has tended towards lobbying for the early ending of analogue services as a way to force people to go digital (A free market response??).

On the radio side, however, policies do seem to have laid the foundations for a strong take-up of digital if there is a demand.

Through the tactic of automatic renewal of analogue licences referred to above, this policy has produced a wealth of digital radio content. Additionally, through the presence of digital channels on Sky's satellite TV system, this digital content has already been made available to a reasonably large number of listeners. And now, the significant price reduction for digital receivers looks as if it may jump-start a much wider take-up.

Certainly the UK Digital Radio Development Bureau, which promotes DAB in the United Kingdom, thinks so and it also thinks that the real driver is new content, not just tinkering about with the same old sources.

Admittedly the UK public already has the benefits of pretty high transmission standards from its broadcasters, meaning that a quality FM receiver in many areas already delivers an excellent signal, but even in the UK, a lot of listening is done in motor vehicles where the surrounding elements aren't exactly conducive to pushing a consumer into a purchase on the basis of slightly better audio quality.

We rather suspect the same may be true in the US, which is why we remain hopeful about the future of satellite radio.

If our supposition is correct, then IBOC is a blind alley: It doesn't offer that much extra if Motorola is telling the truth about its "Symphony" chips, the content is the same advertising-riddled material, and we doubt there'll be many people who'll swap their receiver to IBOC just to have a few text messages along with the programming, especially advertising texts.

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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