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HD Radio development Stasis

I have been working on an HD Radio installation these last few days.  This particular installation was manufactured by Broadcast Electronics.  Some 13 years into the HD Radio development cycle and the implementation still seems like a kluge to me.  To get some idea; to transmit a digital HD Radio with added sub-channels, the following equipment is needed:

  • HD Data importer, off the shelf computer with a sound card and specific software from iBquity.  This is used to import the audio for the HD-2 and HD-3/4 channels.  Runs on Windows (Win 7), Linked to the exporter via IP ethernet
  • HD Radio exporter, another specialized computer with a sound card.  Frames the HD Radio data and adds PID, etc.  Runs on Mandrake Linux, communicates with the exciter via data connection.
  • HD Radio exciter; like other exciters, generates RF and modulates it.
  • HD Radio transmitter; essentially an FM transmitter designed to run as a linear amplifier.

The HD Transmitter part can come in several configurations, including low level combining, high level combining or using a separate antenna for digital and analog signals.

Broadcast Electronics HD Radio transmission system

Broadcast Electronics HD Radio transmission system

None of this is news, of course.  My point is, after ten years, there does not seem to be any further development in HD Radio technology.  In the mean time, competitors are not standing still.  The mobile wireless industry has evolved several times during the same time period; 3G, 4G and LTE have been successfully deployed and widely adopted by mobile phone users.  Truly, mobile data is the real competition to terrestrial broadcasting.

The HD Radio transmission process is an overly complicated patchwork of hardware and software.  The importer in particular seems substandard.  It’s function is to run a bunch of small programs, each doing some small part of the importing process.  The web-admin used Internet Explorer, who uses Internet Explorer anymore?

Since the HD Radio inception, little or no further development seems to have taken place.  There are features, such as album art, program data, traffic data, etc but the system interface is weak, the hardware clunky, the data paths fragile, the operating system outdated, the typical installation is a compromise between cost and available floor space at the transmitter site.

HD Radio is also expensive to deploy and proprietary.  There is little compelling reason to listen to HD-1 channels because the programming is identical to the main analog channel.  HD-2, 3 and 4 channels seem to be mostly used to generate translator feeds, which again, are available with an analog radio.  This use of HD Radio actually damages uptake because, If all the HD Radio sub channels are available on FM analog frequencies, then why even bother with an HD Radio receiver?

Thus the forces at work in the development of HD Radio seem to have reached equilibrium:

Consumer apathy + expensive deployment = 16% uptake on FM and 6% uptake on AM1

The digital radio roll out has been stuck at those levels for many years.  Unless something changes, FM HD Radio will be limited to translator program origination and distribution.  AM HD Radio will go the way of AM Stereo.

1: FCC data on HD Radio deployment; 1,803 of 10,727 FM stations and 299 of 4,708 AM stations have installed HD Radio as of December 31, 2014.

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10 comments to HD Radio development Stasis

  • StvCmty

    Are HD radios as stuck/stagnant?

    For DTV, a 2014 TV’s ATSC receiver is much better at handling a noisy or multipath degraded signal than a DTV or converter box from 2009.

    It seems like HD radios should have made progress over a similar time frame.

  • Chuck Gennaro

    StvCmty,
    I’d tell you all about the current state of HD radios if I could find one without having to resort to Ebay or Amazon.
    Between the rows and rows of HDTV’s WalMart carries there isn’t a single HD radio. Only a few cheapie analogs in various forms. Go ahead and ask the clerk for an “HD” radio. I dare you 🙂
    Rinse and repeat at the other two electronics outlets in town. Don’t have any, don’t know what they are, nobody has asked before, are you sure you don’t mean TV?
    That there is the difference between mandate and voluntary, lol.

    Of course roughly 2/3 the FM’s I can receive do not run HD and have no plans to start, so I imagine even if the radios were stocked, there are no buyers.
    Which in a way also answers Paul’s question on why implementation remains so clunky. Not exactly a whirlwind of demand on the broadcaster’s side either. Seems like an idea still breathing merely because the coroner hasn’t called it yet.

  • Jon Scaptura

    Say what you will about HDRadio, but I find it valuable on long car rides. The ability to listen to a clean HD1 without all the multipath that plagues this market is worth it alone. I frequently travel through the Finger Lake region of NY, and can listen to the same HD2 station over the 2 hour drive. During that trip, I’m only in range of the translator that it is rebroadcast on for about 15 minutes.

    I bought my JVC KT-HDP1 for $5 when Radio Shack had them on clearance. It’s an HD radio and FM modulator that goes inline with my car’s antenna. It doesn’t have many features, but it gets the job done. In my market, there’s a commercial station with and HD2, HD3 and HD4. The public radio station has an HD2, which rebroadcasts their jazz sister station. The HD coverage far exceeds the analog coverage of the sister station.

  • Paul states that “… after ten years, there does not seem to be any further development in HD Radio technology.” The only thing I see is that iBiquity is still collecting royalties for this “technology” in spite of stagnant development. In an article I authored in Radio World several years ago I said that iBiquity was the wrong choice to develop a standard (or monopoly) for HD radio transmission. My suggestion was that any of the companies who developed coding technologies for online streaming would have been vastly superior to the dreadful technology that stations seem to be abandoning. Any of these company’s technologoes: Apple’s Quicktime, Microsoft’s Windows Media, Adobe’s Flash Media Streaming, etc., would have been a much wiser choice considering that co-development of both online and HD codecs could have been maintained side-by-side to reduce the actual costs to not only transmitter manufacturers but also to stations and end users. With the improvements in wifi technologies a receiver could have been developed that could possibly switch between WiMax and off-air feeds of a station, perhaps transparently, when one signal degrades over the other.

    I think the entire HD Radio nonsense is worse off than the debacle over AM Stereo back in the 1990’s. It may take more time than it did for AM Stereo, but when enough stations finally realize the poor ROI on HD transmission they’ll pull the plug and iBiquity will meet its promised fate along with AM Stereo and FM Quad.

  • TP Reitzel

    My forecasting is a bit fuzzy in this regard. The FCC will never voluntarily admit an error so we’ll probably see HD Radio continue for quite some time along with AM stereo. Until a dramatic turn of events occur at the FCC, I don’t see either system ceasing deployment any time soon. Although I think Digital Radio Mondiale would have been a better choice on VHF, I can live with HD Radio on the FM band. However, I’d rather see HD Radio banned on the MW band, though. The lack of reasonably priced HD Radios is a problem, however.

  • Stick a fork in it…. it’s dead.

    The only use I still see in practice of HD Radio/IBOC is feeding translators as a source of alternate programming without actually putting a second station on the air.

    I’m looking forward to something like FMeXtra taking off in the future – while I do like the idea of digital audio broadcasting within the band, iBiquity just pretty much did everything they could have wrong. What a mess.

  • @Paul: According to Barry McLarnon’s AM IBOC Stations on the Air page, the count for AM stations currently running I-Buzz is down to a mere 168.

  • Paul Thurst

    Bill, I was using the “Official” FCC figures, which I know are out dated. No matter which data set is used, the AM IBOC deployment is a very small percentage of currently licensed AM stations.

  • I just installed a new aftermarket HD radio (that I have to swap out again, due to an error from the store I bought it from).
    I had forgotten how nice it is to listen to stations without picket fencing and multi-path noise. In this market (Boston, MA), almost everyone is in HD.

  • What’s the story on FMeXtra? That’s a pretty cool technology, and nowhere near as kludgy! In fact, you can just add it to any FM exciter with SCA inputs! No special mixer, transmitter, etc… it’s just a digital SCA! Oh, and you can buy the encoder outright… no ongoing “license fees” to pay in perpetuity! What’s not to love?

    Only problem is… to my knowledge, there is still ONLY ONE commercial-grade radio receiver… and it’s $200!! I don’t suspect there are very many of those flying off the shelves. 🙁

    It’s a pity, because FMeXtra is everything “HD” is not, and so much more.

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