Speaking of Radio…

I was talking to a friend from Russia about history, my job and various other things that are going on in my life. I received this reply, which I thought was interesting on a number of levels:

I’m glad we are on the same page about the era of the ‘cold war’. We were interested in your life even more than you in ours. We had almost no sources of information except for ‘The morning star’ which is a newspaper of the Communist party of Great Britain. The Voice of America and the Liberty (or Freedom, I have no clue because for us it was ‘RADIO SVOBODA’) were extremely hard to tune on. All foreign broadcasts were jammed. So to listen to the station you should maximize the volume up to the limit which was dangerous. Soviet houses are not at all soundproof and your neighbors could easily rat on you. Since that time I’d been dreaming of a small radio with could receive a clear signal from abroad. Of course we have the Internet broadcasting now but they often use old recording instead of live air and the signal depends on your data carrier. You should be online, you should have an app and unlimited data on your contract, your phone should be charged all the time. Too many conditions. Unfortunately a lot of foreign sites are banned here and the trend is to make this number bigger and bigger.

I find that perspective interesting.  We take for granted our ability to listen to information and listen to different points of view, even those we don’t agree with.  There are still trouble spots in the world and some people are not as fortunate.  It is very easy to block internet traffic and there are several countries that currently block access to some or all of the internet, for the safety of their citizens, no doubt.  Ideas are dangerous.

VOA/RFE transmitter site, Biblis Germany
VOA/RFE transmitter site, Biblis Germany. Photographer: Armin Kübelbeck, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

In the last ten to fifteen years, many large government shortwave broadcasters have reduced or eliminated their programming favoring an internet distribution model.  This is a mistake.  It is very difficult to successfully jam terrestrial radio broadcasts.  Shortwave Facilities are expensive to develop and maintain, there is no doubt about that.  However, as the Chief Engineer from Radio Australia (ABC) once told me “HF will get through when nothing else will.”  Ironically, ABC has eliminated its HF service on January 31, 2017.

It seems to me that a sort of “Shortwave Lite” version of broadcasting might be the answer.  Use more efficient transmitters with lower power levels closer in to the target areas.  Such transmitters could be coupled to rotatable log periodic antennas to target several listening areas with one system, thus greatly reducing the number of towers and land required.  Solid state transmitters with a power of 10-50 KW are much, much more efficient than their tube type brethren.

DRM30 (Digital Radio Mondiale) has not gained wide spread use in the MF and HF bands.  Like it’s HD Radio counterpart, lack of receivers seems to be one of the adoption issues.  As of 2017, there are only four DRM30 capable receivers for sale not counting software plug ins for various SDRs.  That is a shame because my experience with DRM30 reception has been pretty good.  I have used a WinRadio G303i with DRM plug in, which set me back $40.00 for the license key (hint for those nice folks at the DRM consortium; licensing fees tend quash widespread interest and adoption).

CFRX, Toronto coverage map, average HF propagation conditions
CFRX, Toronto coverage map, average HF propagation conditions

Finally, I have advocated before and still advocate for some type of domestic shortwave service.  Right now, I am listening to CFRX Toronto on 6070 KHz.  That station has a transmitter power output of 1 KW into a 117 degree tower (approximately 50 feet tall) using a modified Armstrong X1000B AM transmitter netting  a 15-32 µV received signal strength some 300 miles away.  That is a listenable signal, especially if there is no other source of information available.  The average approximate coverage area for that station is 280,000 square miles (725,000 square kilometers). That is a fairly low overhead operation for a fairly large coverage area.  Perhaps existing licensed shortwave broadcasters should be allowed to operate such facilities in a domestic service.

The point is, before we pull the plug on the last shortwave transmitter, we should carefully consider what we are giving up.

iBiquity sale to DTS

DTS, Inc (NQ:DTSI) is to acquire iBiquity for $172M USD.  This was the headline about the middle of last week.  With that announcement, we get to see some of iBiquity’s financials; revenue of $40-50 million this year with a margin of 30-36%.

My question is, who or what is DTS?  DTS was initially known as Digital Theater Systems, Inc.  They specialize in digital surround sound technology, by developing or acquiring companies that created various CODECs and surround sound technology.

35mm film audio macro

An image of 35 mm film showing four audio formats, from left to right: SDDS (blue area to the left of the sprocket holes), Dolby Digital (grey area between the sprocket holes with the Dolby “Double-D”), analog optical sound (the two white lines to the right of the sprocket holes), and the DTS time code (the dashed line to the far right).  The DTS time code syncs picture to a CD-ROM that contains the surround sound sound track.

DTS continues to develop surround sound technology and makes money by licensing that technology to consumer and professional audio clients.  According to their 2015 Q2 financials, they are on track to make $140-145 million this year with a 25-30% margin.

My next question is, what does this mean for HD Radio?  It is much harder to answer this question, but here are some general observations:

  • DTS is a publicly traded company.  Financials and other information are a matter of public record.  It seems likely that the operation will be more transparent.
  • DTS operates with higher revenue and lower margins.
  • DTS has a high interest in mobile markets; devices and dashboards.
  • DTS has a history of continued development and marketing of technology it owns.

There are a couple of different scenarios possible; the first is business as usual. I think this is the least likely situation.  IBiquity as a company and HD Radio as a technology basically flat lined ten years ago.  A successful company like DTS would not likely purchase something that does not have growth potential.

Second possibility, DTS will keep the same licensing structure, but upgrade the HD Radio technology.  From a audiophile’s perspective; HD-1 sounds good, HD-2, 3, and 4 channels not so much.  This is especially true as more channels are added and the same size pie (aggregate digital bandwidth) gets divvied up into smaller and smaller pieces.  One area where HD Radio could shine is to get rid of the HD2-4 channels and create an IP multicast system.  IPv6 has greatly improved multicast performance which might enable a free data stream download, minimal data back haul via mobile data for an interactive, low data usage digital experience.  That would free up a lot of translators.

Third possibility, DTS will reduce the licensing fees for broadcasters and consumers and accept a lower margin on existing technology.  DTS will use HD Radio as a route to get their technology into dashboards, which is where they see their future profits.  Remember, the self driving car is only a few years away and mobile entertainment will be all the next rage.

As far as AM HD Radio goes, I don’t see anything happening with that.  Medium wave broadcast channels do not offer enough bandwidth to facilitate reliable digital transmission.

In any case, for better or for worse, change is coming to terrestrial radio.

Norway says “Goodbye, FM”

Norway will switch off its national FM networks in 2017, according to the Ministry of Culture announcement.  In the place of analog FM will be DAB.  The aim is to have the migration to DAB completed by December of 2017.  According to the article, approximately 54 percent of households and 20 percent of automobiles have DAB radios.  What is left unsaid is the 46 percent of households and 80 percent of automobiles that do not have DAB capable receivers.

I am sure that in the ensuing year and a half to two years, those numbers will change somewhat.  It still seems to me that there will be many people who will likely not have a DAB radio in their car before the analog switch off.

Judging by the comments on the Slash dot story, many are not happy with this decision.  Perhaps the most telling comment is this:

This is just Norway going off on its own crusade urged on by commercial interests of 10+ new channels, fuck whether it makes sense to throw out millions of radios… I expect this to lead to a massive interest in building out 3G/4G coverage as ex-FMers give DAB the middle finger.

Yup, that sounds about right.

I don’t know much about radio in Norway, but it if is anything like radio here, good programming trumps technical do-dads and and fancy gimmickry.

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.