Why is Digital Radio needed?

Perhaps it is a good time to pose a few questions regarding the future of radio broadcasting and digital radio in particular.  For this article, I will assume that everyone understands that digital radio is a type of modulation using data transmitted at high speeds, which is reassembled in the receiver to generate audio for the listener.

  1. Why is digital radio needed?
  2. What are the benefits of transitioning to digital radio?
  3. Who would benefit most?
  4. Who would benefit least?
  5. What are the alternatives to digital radio?
  6. Why or why not proceed with the transition already started?

To answer the first question, we need to understand the current consumer market place and the all pervasive notion of disruptive (aka destructive) innovation.  That is to say, a new technology that builds on existing technology or knowledge, while eventually replacing or destroying its predecessor.  Think; horse and buggy vs. automobile, microwave network vs. fiber optic network, wired telephone network vs. cellular phones or film photography vs digital photography.  In other words, the older technology becomes obsolete and is abandoned in view of the improvements brought on by innovations.

Disruptive Technology
Disruptive Technology

No one can argue that innovations have not greatly improved our lifestyle and productivity in the last one hundred years.  Few would opt to permanently return to an era of no electricity, no electronic communications, and no cars.  In order for the destructive innovation argument to succeed, however, the technology in question must be improved in a way that benefits the greater society.

Digital modulation methods have been under development since ATT started using T-carriers to transmit telephone calls over long distance circuits.  Over the years, several different methods were developed including Phase (or Frequency) Shift Keying (PSK), Multiple Phase Shift Keying (QPSK), Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM), and Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (ODFM).

For various purposes, these digital modulation methods offer distinct advantages over analog modulation methods.

Thus, the proponents of digital radio broadcasting postulate the advantages of transitioning to a digital radio are:

  • Improved sound quality, often using terms like “CD Quality,” etc
  • Improved spectrum efficiency, more broadcasting channels for the same amount of frequency allotted.
  • Improved coverage area, less interference, out of band noise, etc
  • Value added accessories, such as data services (song title and artist), album art, Electronic Programming Guide, H. 264 video, etc
  • Keep up with evolving technology

Thus, the question of why digital radio is needed is answered by listing the possible benefits of such a transition.  By the list of benefits above, most consumers would find improvements in digital radio broadcasting as would most broadcasters.  In theory, it is not a bad idea.

In the real world, theory and application are often radically different.  Innovation is most often, although not always, driven by a profit motive.  Digital radio technology is no different.  The proponents of digital radio are attempting to move technology forward while making profit.  There is nothing wrong with that, provided the consumer sees the value in the new technology and embraces it.  That is a key part of the current digital radio puzzle which is missing; the consumer.

Unfortunately for digital radio broadcasting, several of the above benefits have not been fully realized in the first iteration of the technology.  In several countries, digital radio has taken the form of IBOC via either DRM or HD Radio®.  Others choose to do DAB via Eureka 147.  In almost every case, the average consumer has not embraced the new technology for several reasons:

  1. Coincidentally with the roll out of IBOC, the mobile internet has become pervasive by use of things like smart phones, tablets and similar devices.  Via 3G and 4G mobile networks, consumers can access almost an unlimited number of programming choices from across the world.
  2. Programming offerings on digital radio differ only slightly with those available on analog radio.  Consumers are left with no compelling reason to purchase or install a digital radio.
  3. The technical advantages of digital radio are not consistent enough or significant enough to make a difference in the listening experience.
  4. The availability of other competing entertainment mediums such as MP3 players, satellite radio (XM/Sirius), internet streaming, etc.

Many point out that internet type services require and internet service provider (ISP), mobile data plans, or some other type of paid service.  Further; 3G, 4G and or WiFi services are not universally available.  All of that may be true, however, mobile data networks are rolling out far faster than IBOC.  Consumers appear to be willing to pay for internet service for a variety of reasons, including mobile listening.

The major flaw of the internet technology is a capability of ISPs cut off service at the request of the government for any reason.  There is also the ability to block access to certain websites, countries, search results, or services.  There are several bills currently under consideration in Congress to codify this, which is an ominous development.  Eventually, one of these bills will make it through and become law, creating some form of censorship on the internet.  In light of the potential issues with the internet, free, over the air broadcasting is necessary, if not vital, to democracy provided the ownership is dispersed and diverse.

There are distinct advantages to digital radio broadcasting which may be realized with different systems that are developed in the future.  It may require a re-think of what it means to be a broadcaster and how to make digital radio broadcasting more like IP based interactive web streaming, available for free using different frequencies than what are in use currently.  The general public has shown, by their lack of interest, that digital radio broadcasting as is being carried out today is not necessary.  While digital modulation has been around for quite some time, the politics and bureaucracy involved with creating a digital radio broadcasting service has stunted development, making the technology almost irrelevant.