Digital Payback

This comment, on Slashdot, a discussion board covering a multitude of subjects, pretty much summarizes the state of IBOC vis-Γ -vis its European counterpart, Digital Radio Mondiale:

In my opinion it’s a moot issue. I’ve worked on HD Radio exciters for some years, first with great enthusiasm and now with very little. It’s a great idea on paper but when you listen to an actual radio in the real world the difference is VERY underwhelming. AM is a lot bigger improvement but FM is almost a wash. I can’t imagine anyone paying for so minimal an improvement. If you’re into AM talk radio I can see it but I don’t think anyone is going to pay the iBiquity tax (every radio manufacturer has to pay for iBiquity IP to have an HD decoder) to have a radio that “sounds a little better.” The ability to send multiple programs over the same signal benefits the radio station owner far more than the listener and it doesn’t seem to be taking off. The stations don’t seem to know what to do with the extra programming time (that could change though). I’ve heard the market penetration reports weekly (from iBiquity) for years. At first it was going like gangbusters. Now it’s just dying and iBiquity is in BIG trouble. They’ve been considered for acquisition by both Apple and Google and apparently neither found them worthy. That should tell you something…. My company doesn’t even want to continue updating the software for these devices because there simply isn’t enough payback to make it worth doing. Radio stations aren’t buying because it’s not making much difference to their advertisers.

And from a radio engineering type:

I’m a broadcast engineer who has installed several HD-R systems (two AM, three FM). My biggest complaint, and one that I’ve shared quite vocally in my own industry, is the *extremely* closed-source nature of HD radio. It’s not just, “we’ve copyrighted it and you must pay for each use,” it’s, “we own it, the WHOLE THING is a top secret, and unless you pay us a huge fee, you can’t even think about making modifications or adding anything to what we deem useful or appropriate.”

Just one example of many: the first exciters that we received used a very simple ID3 tagging scheme for the PAD data, sent via UDP to a well-known port. The “exporters” (the non-intuitive name for the devices that allow us to multicast, i.e., put more than one format on a single FM signal) use a closed, proprietary client-server model. I’ve looked at it with Wireshark and it appears that ID3 is imbedded in the packets, but it just wasn’t worth the bother to try to figure out the whole thing. iBiquity ain’t tellin’ unless you pay them a license fee.

I imagine that iBiquity assumed (and told their investors) that, because they’d have exclusive rights, it would be a Pot Of Gold(tm). That hasn’t panned out, so they’re desperately trying to monetize every little aspect of the system among those of who bit the bullet and paid (substantial, mind you!) fees to initially install it during the rollout. Want to add multicast channels? You pay for that. Want to add iTunes tagging? Ditto. OH … and you want to write your own stuff to ride in the PAD (program associated data) slot, maybe customize something for your own station? Sorry, we don’t support that yet, but we may eventually …

Instead, in this day and age of competition from all sorts of delivery sources (streaming, anyone?), it has simply slowed uptake to a crawl. Ford originally announced that they’d have HD receivers in their cars a few years ago. That slipped; they said it would be 2009 for sure. THAT slipped. Now we’re almost in 2011, and there still aren’t very many HD receivers in cars. They are supposedly going to do it in 2012, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

If iBuiquity had simply patented the delivery method (the “container,” for you geeks here πŸ™‚ ) and made the license fees rational, HD-R would be in 80-90% of the stations in the United States. Instead, it languishes, and we (i.e., radio engineers) are looking at another AM Stereo debacle: we paid tons of money up front, promoted it to death, and it died anyway.

As for going with DRM or some other system, that would be asking broadcasters to abandon their (substantial) investment in HD-R and make a completely new investment in a new system. I hope I’m not too cynical now, but I honestly believe that the future is in wireless streaming. Let’s keep our streams clean and clear sounding, concentrate on programming, and when the inevitable coast-to-coast wireless coverage finally arrives, we’ll already be positioned to survive. I think that moving to DRM now would be a mistake, myself.

And another engineer speaks out:

I am a broadcast engineer with over 30 years of experience.

IBOC is a true joke. It’s the FIRST broadcast service ever authorized by the FCC that actually CAUSES interference β€” mostly to your NEIGHBORS above and below you on the dial! IBOC is also an FCC sanctioned PRIVATELY owned system that costs broadcasters over $25K in upfront licensing fees β€” and then more in continuing royalty payments.

What most of us want (broadcast engineers) is for the FCC to authorize TV channels 5 and 6 for a dedicated digital radio band using DRM. Low band VHF is the WORST place for Digital Television (it goes in order UHF channels 20-40, UHF channels 14-20, UHF channels 40-51 , VHF channels 7-13 and finally VHF channels 2-6). Right now there are about 25 DTV stations on channels 5 and 6 in the entire country β€” and it’s been proven that EVERY ONE can be accommodated on UHF (To accommodate the station in Philadelphia on channel 6, a station in Reading, PA would have to move to a different UHF channel and give Philly its current channel, OR Philadelphia can move to channel 3 if they insist on staying on low band VHF-a BAD idea!).

If the FCC got off their ever widening ASS and did this, every AM station that wanted a digital FM could have one β€” with enough left over for every FM station too β€” AND a nationwide FM frequency for the National Weather Service/Homeland Security to operate on!

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