No sooner did I get done posting on this topic earlier this morning, but I found that consultant Mark Ramsey made an excellent closely-related post on his on blog yesterday. Great minds think alike? ;-) See Everything you need to know about FM radio chips in mobile phones at Mark Ramsey Media. He covers more ground than the title implies. Good reading. --Dennis
Steve Yasko, GM of WTMD in Towson, MD (Baltimore area) recently brought up this subject on two public radio lists which I would really categorize as scalability of listening by means other than an analog radio. Here’s my take on this and, as usual in things relating to public radio, comments here are my own, not NPR’s (see About).
Content is like water. Water flows through big channels nicely but also through smaller channels and cracks whenever it has a chance. Continuing the analogy, the effect of those smaller flows over time often makes the smaller openings larger. Radio content is flowing nicely through the broadcast channels we have – they scale very well, but it’s also beginning to emerge through other openings as well. And, just as well-drillers often fractionate bedrock to create more cracks for water to be released, new products for distributing media content are being developed constantly.
With some regularity, I listen to Pandora over my iPhone on my car’s sound system and to Northwest Public Radio’s folk music program while riding my tractor Saturday afternoons in Virginia. Some people to whom I (and others) mention this think, “Well, that’s cool,” and try it themselves, thereby testing a little more the limits of the wireless IP channels that were originally set up for voice calls. It should probably be like not telling your friends about that great little restaurant you found. Already, I can’t reliably do this inside the Washington beltway at most times of day, and it’s a non-starter during rush hour along major roads. Wireless providers are reaching the limits of available spectrum in major markets so are abandoning their “all-you-can-eat” plans (I’m grandfathered – heh, heh), at least for now. The reason mobile streaming is working at all during favorable hours or favorable locations is that so few people – other than us in the radio cognoscenti – are doing it.
But don’t take too much comfort from today’s limitations. They won’t last. The iPhone and iPad are garnering a well-deserved share of attention, but Android devices are now outselling iPhones and an avalanche of cheap Android tablets will almost surely do the same to the iPad in the autumn (WebOS, Windows Phone 7 and Linux tablets in there, too). There will be a lot of mobile media devices out there very soon. 4G systems are being rolled out by all major carriers and reclaiming spectrum from television and government users has a head of steam. The cracks through which content trickles now will enlarge to small channels and the small channels will become larger ones. Do we really want to bring out the Bondo and duct tape or do we want people to find us many places?
Broadcasters even have a (possibly interim) role in mitigating the current spectrum problems. Flo TV is providing white label television streaming services to Sprint and AT&T cell phones using broadcast-style transmission over spectrum that used to belong to UHF TV (seamless to the cell phone user). In radio, the NAB is advocating putting mandatory FM chips in cell phones while a credible research company report says that digital radio will benefit from the spectrum crunch by mid-2011 when carriers use it to mitigate IP audio traffic problems in smartphones. If we’re smart, broadcasters will use the time we have to develop hybrid IP/broadcast radios and/or RadioDNS-enabled radio receivers – not to mention find ways to make it easier for people to find us on their many IP devices.
It’s all about scale. We’ll see lots of strategies to manage it. Right now it’s pricing and the beginnings of non-IP delivery for media content. Soon it will be more IP packets delivered to your devices, and you can be sure that will impact pricing as well – likely in the more for your dollar direction. Carriers have a lot of knobs they can twist, so don’t judge today’s situation in pricing or capacity as significant for much longer than an eye blink in media time.
Update 11:15 Eastern: Coincidentally, consultant Mark Ramsey makes many of the same points plus others in an excellent new (somewhat mistitled) post on his blog. Link: Mark Ramsey Media.
On Friday MediaDailyNews reported erroneously on a new report from ABI Research (picked up by FMQB and others) that “various [European] governments have established HD radio as the national standard” and says that “ABI expects the global ‘installed base’ of HD radio receivers to jump to 200 million by 2015.”
The digital radio market has just began to see consumer adoption in the US and Western Europe. By the end of 2010, about four million digital radios using iBiquity’s proprietary HD Radio technology will have shipped in the US. In Europe (led by Britain) governments have chosen the DAB standard and consumers have purchased nearly 13.5 million radio receivers. By 2015, the worldwide installed base of digital radio receivers, excluding handsets, is expected to reach nearly 200 million units. ¶ “Smartphones are expected to include digital radio receivers starting in mid-2011, driven by carriers’ desire to offer users premium audio content while limiting the use of scarce radio spectrum,” says ABI Research senior analyst Sam Rosen. “This concern is demonstrated by AT&T’s decision to stop offering unlimited data plans, due largely to high data usage in New York and San Francisco resulting from Internet radio sites such as Pandora.” ¶ Digital radio technologies, including satellite radio and Internet radio, are expected to reverse trends of decreasing listenership. Listeners will have access to niche programming targeted to narrower demographic segments and will respond to a more interactive user experience enabled by program guides and other enhancements. Broadcasters, in turn, will have a larger reach and the ability to provide better targeted and more interactive ads. … [bold added]
HD Radio® is primarily a U.S. standard for in-band on-channel digital radio. Europe chose a DAB standard that operates on exclusively digital channels.
For our purposes as broadcasters, the two sentences that I highlighted in bold above contain some encouragement, if they prove correct. Clearly, the carriers are finding it difficult to scale to audio and video streaming on existing networks so incorporating broadcast spectrum capabilities into their handsets can be a good strategy for them. Apple has reportedly included (but not yet turned on) broadcast capabilities in recent chipsets.
I was born on the leading age of the baby boom and FM radio was non-existent in our part of the country when I was growing up. So my introduction to radio was on my family’s Coronado console radio with “magic eye tuning” back when soap operas, evening dramas and westerns, and variety shows still were popular on radio. When I started one-room country school in 1953, our teacher would play a story lady program from KUSD in Vermillion, South Dakota for those of us in the younger grades, so what we now call public radio on AM was one of my earliest media sources.
In my early teenage years, I collected QSL (verification) cards from AM stations all over the country, and KUSD’s towers could be seen blinking at night from where we lived 15 miles away. AM radio had a sort of romantic pull, best memorialized in the 1973 movie, American Graffiti, where Wolfman Jack spun records in the shack under a tower. My first electronic gadget was a 6-transistor AM radio, bought circa 1962 for $21 ($149 today by CPI), and on it I listened to all the top 40 music I could find on KAAY, KOMA and, of course, Dick Biondi on WLS.
When I got out of the Air Force in 1969 and needed a job to help pay for college, KUSD seemed to be a good place to look, and I landed one there. I was now sitting in the shack under the tower as a weekend transmitter operator, but rather than spinning records, all I had to do was get out of my chair every half hour and read the meters. A few years later, I did the engineering to drop in an FM station for KUSD and, quite some time after I left, they shut down the AM station and took down the towers. It’s starting to look like that will be the fate of other public radio AMs.
In the August 9 issue of the public broadcasting industry newspaper, Current, Karen Everhart has what is, therefore, for me a sad recounting of the difficulty of building an audience for public radio news programming on the AM band. She writes:
… Decisions about audience service priorities have never been easy for public radio stations that broadcast both news and music programming, but they’re especially confounding for those with AM stations. AM’s low audio fidelity and interference problems make the frequencies more suitable for news/talk than music, but listeners’ habits of scanning the left end of the FM dial for public radio are so deeply ingrained that building a loyal audience on AM would be a Sisyphean labor. …
Yes, it is difficult to build audiences there. When I took over as GM of KWSU(AM) in 1978, 70% of listening in the market was to AM, but by the mid-80s, that ratio had flipped. The AM band has been greatly compromised as ably described in Karen’s article, and that’s led to it becoming a sort of remainder store for all manner of programming that can’t make it on FM. Public radio alone won’t make a difference there because the AM band is such a rundown neighborhood. The neighborhood determines in large part the value of your property. Even if HD takes hold on the AM band, unless the band is used again for something other than political and religious screamers, cellar-dwelling baseball teams, and the like, the fidelity improvement alone won’t make a difference. --Dennis
I’m reposting the following by my NPR colleague, David Julian Gray. It was originally posted on an internal blog, Technically Speaking. About a month ago, I reposted another essay of his on RadioDNS. --Dennis
At a technology presentation last year, which was sadly more interesting than the Major League ballgame used to lure me there, a vendor's Sr. VP asked what I thought of "cloud computing." I dismissively answered "You might as well ask me what I think of air! -- 'Cloud Computing' is just a convenient marketing term for remote applications and storage accessible over the Internet -- technologies which have been evolving for decades..." But this was too flip, I thought the trend toward so-called "cloud computing" so obvious I missed the forest for the trees -- or the clouds for the air ...
As it happens, I've been thinking a lot about "AIR" -- or better "The AIR" -- as broadcasters think about it -- that is, the Electromagnetic Spectrum or at least that part of it known as the "Radio Spectrum". I'm also thinking a lot about "The CLOUD" -- as the FCC appears to be thinking about it -- that is, the Radio Spectrum. "The AIR" is getting very cloudy these days -- as is the difference between the conglomeration of technologies, techniques, services and resources once known as "The Internet" and those once known as "broadcasting." As Vint Cerf, true daddy of the Internet and now Chief Evangelist for Google, is fond of saying: "IP on everything."
In my last entry in this space, I wrote about RadioDNS as a possible, I think ideal, bridging technology between traditional terrestrial broadcasting and mobile broadband platforms. To briefly recap, RadioDNS propose a collection of technologies to leverage the existing data already included in both standard analog and HD-Radio broadcasts to link to other services and content already and/or potentially provided by broadcasters to a variety WEB and mobile devices. In other words it merges "the broadcast cloud" with "the IP cloud".
As far as the FCC is concerned -- this cannot happen fast enough, but their approach is to annex "the broadcast cloud" and hand it over to those providing IP based services. That's what the conversion to digital TV was all about -- reminds me of old Hollywood's take on the Railroad's great land grab of the mid to late 19th Century -- you know the push to drive farmers off the land to make room for modern commerce. This is the great Radio Spectrum grab of the early 2010's, the push to drive broadcasters off the spectrum to make room for "Mobile Broadband"...puts an ominous spin on the exhortation to "Rule the Air."
But it needn't be ominous at all -- there are models of how providing information and content via an integrated set of radio spectrum based services blur any distinction between "broadcast" and "broadband". I'll get flip again and say it's a specious distinction after all. That seems clear to NBC and Comcast -- who have been trying to elope. One successful model we can point to of an integrated "broadcast/IP cloud" is in service to the Public Broadcasting community: the PRSS Content Depot.
"Radio Towers" aren't going away in five years or any time soon-- even if, or when, the FM band is yanked by some government agency and auctioned off to LTE or WiMAX providers -- for where will those LTE or WiMAX, etc. signals be coming from? "The Cloud" is just an expression ...
-djg (David Julian Gray, IS Sr Product Manager, Content Production
Last week, public radio's audience ratings broke new ground when WAMU's HD Multicast Bluegrass Country made Arbitron's May 2010 broadcast ratings. An HD station appearing in the Arbitron numbers is a rarity; it's a first for public radio and only the second station to achieve this feat. …
Read Ben’s comments at NPR’s Go Figure blog. --Dennis
There is necessarily a lot of interest in the future of internet radio, especially of the mobile kind, within the radio broadcasting community, public and commercial. I say necessarily because of the potential it has to, at a minimum, disrupt the current economics of broadcasters and, at the ultimate, to replace big tower radio with radio delivered by internet protocol (IP). We want to know: is internet radio irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan’s coinage or is it something real?
There’s certainly exuberance about internet radio, some of it irrational, but I believe that it will have a real impact on broadcast economics. I concluded the post linked in the next paragraph with this:
… To be consequential to us, these services have to only skim the cream off our listening to harm the thinning margins that most stations are experiencing. …
I’m always interested in analyzing the mechanics of change. What technical and economic hurdles does a new technology have to overcome to be disruptive? Toward that end, I was interested in the issue of how to scale up radio listening in a wireless IP environment. In a previous post on this subject, Does radio need to worry about IP-delivered audio?, I looked at the very real technology issues relating to scaling up IP bandwidth for traffic loads comparable to current radio listening and posited some developments that could mitigate that.
So I’d like this time to consider economic hurdles, specifically the trend toward tiered data pricing. There’s a wide range of actual use among smartphone data users (¼ actually use no data, while the top 6% use ½ of all data). Streaming users are more likely to be heavy users, so in tiered pricing, they’re likely to pay more because their subsidy by light users goes away.
In a paper analyzing the telecommunications market over the next five years, IBM Global Business Services says that as IP-based high-speed mobile data standards such as LTE and WiMAX spread more broadly throughout the world, carriers will give up trying to stop over-the-top providers such as Skype from riding over their pipes and will eventually "enter into formal partnerships" with them. But because the carriers will be losing the revenue they once generated through minute-based cellular plans, they will have to make up for it by eliminating their all-you-can-eat data plans. ¶ "If people value connectivity then they must pay for connectivity," says Ekow Nelson, the global leader for the communications sector at the IBM Institute for Business Value. "With all-you-can-eat models there's going to be no way for carriers to compete. This will be an adjustment because most users have been conditioned to enjoy unlimited access to over-the-top services for free."
There will be some carriers that buck the tiered pricing trend, but IBM’s analysis seems pretty solid to me, especially since in this country it’s being lead by LTE rather than WiMAX companies (the former seems destined to dominate 4G). It’s likely that pricing for both light and heavy users will decline with time, but tiered pricing won’t help adoption of mobile streaming in the near term. Until that general price decline happens, tiered pricing will be a hurdle.
Happily for me, I’m grandfathered into AT&T’s all-you-can-eat 3G data plan, so I can continue to enjoy Pandora in my car from a double-tethered iPhone (audio and power) during low or moderate data use hours. It’s already largely replaced real radio for music listening late evenings and weekends. But it’s a long, long way from replacing traditional radio stations for my news, traffic and weather needs. --Dennis
I'm posting below an interesting guest contribution by David Julian Gray, Sr. Product Manager, IS Operations at NPR. He originally posted it to an internal NPR blog called Technically Speaking and he's given me permission (thanks) to cross-post here. David is on my staff at NPR, and I should add that this is not an official NPR communication and the usual disclaimer in "About" applies. --Dennis
Some folks think the end of broadcasting in nigh and "mobile broadband" is
the platform of the very-near-term future.
Maybe they're right -- when mobile broadband is sufficiently ubiquitous,
sufficiently "broad", sufficiently reliable and sufficiently free -- who wouldn't
choose the media rich interactivity of the mobile web over the more limited
choices of broadcast ... But those are a lot of "ifs" -- particularly the "free"
part, and the ubiquitous part... and the reliable part .... Seems to me it would
be a lot simpler just to create a method to associate broadcast streams with
mobile web streams. This was part of the promise of "HD Radio" (when it was
still called IBOC and our own esteemed Mike Starling had not yet shown everyone
the way of multicasting) ...
Where is this promise realized?
Tantalizingly close with the Microsoft Zune-HD with its touch screen WI-FI and HD radio
receiver... Tantalizingly close with the internet only NPR Radio by Livio ...Tantalizingly close with the iPod nano ... close ...but
no "cigar" which in this case is, not just a "smart" radio -- but a really
smart radio which seamlessly integrates broadcast streams with the richness
and interactivity of the WEB.
What could be so hard? Receiver chips are cheap and essentially all broadcast
streams already carry digitally encoded station identification information as
part of either -or both- its RADIO DATA
SYSTEM data or its HD Radio stream. All that is needed is for a device --
something similar to (but just that much smarter than) the three mentioned above
-- to add a simple program which grabs the already present station ID
information and looks up the stations web presence as listed in the Domain Name
System, then allow the user to navigate from WEB to Radio -- Radio to WEB ...
and they move from stream to stream.
Beyond enriching the user experience beyond what either medium provides alone
today (even with dual devices), such a system provides the bridging technology
which enables, and perhaps even hides, a transition from traditional
broadcasting to mobile web ... a smooth, transparent user experience should such
a transition come in 18 months, 18 years, or never ... Call this system: RADIO-DNS... that's the clear and
logical name this existing technology has ...
Perhaps we should climb on board ... learn
more... David Julian Gray -- Sr. Product Manager, IS
Neil Hughes at AppleInsider is reporting on a patent application by Apple for a device that would add HD Radio to future. Gigaware already makes such a device for the iPhone that's pretty cool for the current state of HD Radio (I own one), but it looks like the Apple patent would permit extending HD Radio's capabilities significantly. Joe Aimonetti at CNet has more.
I've been arguing since late 2006 (though not with a great deal of frequency or success) that the real power of HD Radio isn't its audio fidelity or even iTunes tagging or multi-channel capabilities, but rather its ability to morph into a seamless hybrid broadcast/IP radio. That has the power to disrupt. Recent developments with RadioDNS and now this one from Apple give me hope that someone smarter than I will figure this out.
Update 22 June 2010: Sean Ross makes my point in a different way in, If HD Radio WERE On the iPhone. Link: The Infinite Dial. --Dennis
A recent article written by Mike Starling and myself in Current was reprinted here on this blog where it has drawn to date five comments, all critical (well, at least that’s better than the spam comments I have to delete each week).
The most interesting of these mentioned FMeXtra, a subcarrier based digital radio technology offered by VuCast. I think (corrections, please), that the only receiver is offered by VuCast and only a handful of stations in the U.S. and Europe are broadcasting it. It’s had nowhere near the marketing investment of HD Radio, so unless you’re reading the broadcast engineering trade pubs, you may not be aware of it. The technology can apparently co-exist on the same transmitter with HD Radio, does have certain advantages, and is or will be used by radio reading services in Minnesota.