| Digital - What's
As with so many questions of this type, the
answer depends on where you start from and with digital radio
there are many starting points. So first let's consider what
digital does in technological and resource terms, the base
from which in our view we should start.
In essence by going digital, much more can be crammed into
the same spectrum since only changes have to be described
as opposed to an entire signal moved - and changes through
coding can be very efficiently described.
To the scientist and technologist there is an elegance in
this; to the engineer a series of choices as to how far to
go for improving technical quality as opposed to putting more
signals into the spectrum available; to the accountant the
split of the above that will yield most revenue; and to a
government the same from a different perspective - namely
what it can get from the spectrum released by kicking existing
users off their spectrum balanced against the level of complaints
from those who will lose - government's certainly don't seem
to care about a public having to collectively spend z-billions
on replacement equipment (whether or not they benefit much)
so long as they can get the highest fraction of z into their
A hidden tax in effect combined with redistribution of costs,
much the same as many automated answering machines force the
caller to spend time and money saving the organization's costs
but frequently with much less service to the caller than a
more expensive human might provide.
Applying the above to
The most important factor in our view in the
difference between the way radio has fared compared to TV
comes down to the auction value of the spectrum it uses: TV
spectrum is massively more valuable for mobile communications
so from a governmental point of view the return it gets makes
any hassle well worth while. There's also the benefit of being
able to point to an obviously cleaner picture and the potential
purchase of HDTV.
In the case of radio the benefit-to-cost ration is far less
for all involved, which is not to say that there is not a
good case for digital radio but does significantly alter the
On the plus side, there are potential benefits in terms of
quality - if broadcasters want to opt for audio quality rather
than extra services - but they are not as obvious and in many
listening situations are not particularly great. There is
also the potential for more channels but if this is to be
used for more slicing of musical genres, we don't see major
commercial potential in the extras.
We do, however, see significant potential benefits in terms
of community stations but that would require considerable
changes in regulatory attitudes in various countries, particularly
So let's backtrack a moment. Technology has been developed
that, within existing resources, can allow a combination of
higher quality audio and extra channels (as with HD and digital
TV compared to analogue).
The question then arises as how to make the best use of this
additional public resource - and we stress the word "public"
because the resource is one that belongs to all, not to broadcasters
or telecommunications companies who can corrupt politicians
to maximise their profits rather than the public good, but
to the public.
There should therefore have been adequate public debate on
the options before moves were made to introduce particular
systems and we rather suspect that had this been done, there
would have been no HD radio: We conclude later that the best
bet for this is for the US to provide DAB spectrum and if
this is taken up let market pressures force iBiquity into
collapse, make the technology available without fees, and
allow the market to develop a new world receiver that would
encompass AM/FM/SW/DAB/DRM and HD.
Options for digital
Continuing our thoughts from the above,
HD is obviously a terrific way to go digital - assuming it catches
on- for existing broadcasters who gain further resources from
the public sphere without making any additional payments. It's
a supposed market approach that in our view is nothing of the
kind but is more of a corrupt handout to the already powerful.
So what were the options? In essence they were to use separate
spectrum for digital - the DAB approach for FM being the prime
example of this approach - or to use part of existing allocated
analogue spectrum for digital - the iBiquity in-band-on-channel
It will be no secret to those who have read us for any time
to find out that we are in essence in favour of the first option.
The prime reason for this is inherent in what we have said above
and a secondary reason is that it is much easier for regulators
within the DAB approach to encourage extra services for the
public albeit it is not automatic: Australia, for example, is
ensuring that existing broadcast licensees will have a DAB monopoly
for an initial period and thus in public interest terms is offering
no major benefits over and above those that HD could provide.
The UK has done a better job in our view by allowing new players
in and at the same time ensuring that existing services also
have a motive to support the system by granting automatic renewal
of analogue licences where the licensee is providing a service
on the relevant digital multiplex.
Canada went for the worst option in our view, by initially limiting
DAB transmissions to simulcasts of analogue programming although
it has subsequently reversed this decision.
What has been done so far by regulators, therefore, varies from
protecting the interests of existing analogue broadcasters but
also providing a platform for new services (the UK) to further
entrenching the dominance of existing licensees (pretty well
What should have been done.
In our view this outcome is not in the best overall
public interest although there are strong arguments
for the approach adopted by the UK in that for digital
to succeed the platform does need to have popular services
- which inevitable will initially be existing analogue
services - as well as addition ones. The argument in
terms of better technical quality is in our view totally
inadequate as a reason for people to dump their analogue
receivers and we continue to think, as we have often
said, that analogue should not be switched off.
So how would it be possible to maximise the public benefit
from the additional potential that digital brings?
We take the view that in a rapidly changing communications
world, wireless internet can potentially bite very deeply
into music FM - it would bite even further were the
US Congress to forget lobbying and go for the logical
and fair approach of equal treatment for all as regards
recording royalty payments, which would mean terrestrial
radio paying them as others have to but with amendment
of the rates to be paid (and we still think a number
of tariffs as we suggested in our March
2007 Comment would be preferable to the existing
one-price-for-all system since it would bring in some
potential market incentives into the thinking of copyright
holders: If they try and charge too much they would
actually lose in our system).
This means that in consideration of the maximum public
benefit the interests of most commercial radio - which
rides on the back of the recording industry - need to
be significantly discounted, although obviously not
We would therefore suggest that the first move that
needs to be made is to separate the platform and broadcaster:
This happens with DAB where a multiplex operator provides
the platform for a number of services and it ought to
have been a quid-quo-pro of selecting HD as the sole
system in the US where in our view broadcasters should
have had to face the prospect of losing analogue licences
if they did not provide digital services together with
a requirement of providing at cost plus say 5% a platform
on all but one digital channel for other broadcasters:
Whoops- that would have killed HD!
Go for a true market approach.
So let's do just
that: Go for a true market approach - leave
HD as it is, provide spectrum for DAB (and also
DRM) in the US and see if there is sufficient
interest from a combination of commercial and
community broadcasters to make it viable.
We rather suspect here might well be in major
cities (there would be no development costs
since both transmission systems and fairly cheap
receivers have already been developed for DAB/DRM
elsewhere in the world and will be developed
further as major players such as China and Russia
ramp up their broadcasts).
If there is and DAB becomes successful we suspect
HD would die or have to be made available worldwide
withotu licensing costs. This would mean egg
on the face of the FCC and wasted investment
by broadcasters who have gone to HD unless they
use their lobbying power and resources to buy
out iBiquity and make the technology freely
available to all without charge, thus meaning
that manufacturers, who are already developing
AM/FM/SW/DAB/DRM receivers would probably add
That way strikes us as far more productive for
the public interest everywhere than the situation
that currently exists. If the finances were
right for the development of such multi-standard
receivers the end results would be that the
market would see to their development; there
would again be worldwide receivers whose price
would fall considerably; broadcasters would
have incentives to use all the platforms according
to demand; and listeners would gain additional
commercial, public and community services.
The downside in terms of egg on face in terms
of the US and HD would be one we would consider
fully deserved as would any additional costs
to US broadcasters who preserved their own interests
at the expense of those of the public but the
upside would be tremendous for the medium and
ultimately for adoption of all the technologies
concerned worlwide where appropriate. It might
even mean HD getting used a lot more widely
than it is likely to be at the moment.
What you think? Please