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dab digital radio radio technology

Too much technology

YouFM by NickPiggott@flickr

This week I was lucky enough to meet up with my colleagues and peers in the German commercial radio industry, and spend a day at a seminar organised by VPRT in Berlin. It gave me an insight into their world, and their situation, which I’ve been lacking for a long time. It also made me realise that they’re being let down by some technologists.

DAB Digital Radio has been dominated by public service broadcasters, and the membership of WorldDMB is testament to that fact. Of the hundreds of members of WorldDMB, only 3 commercial radio companies are represented; GCap Media (UK), Channel 4 Radio (UK) and Commercial Radio Australia. The UK’s approach of co-operation between the public and commercial sectors has been an exceptional undertaking. Only recently have commercial broadcasters begun to engage with DAB, visibly in Switzerland, France, Australia, Germany, and the mood is changing elsewhere.

What I’ve learnt in my two days with my German colleagues is that they’re asking very good questions, and indeed probably more informed and relevant questions than we did when we kicked off DAB in the mid-90’s. There are lots of questions that need answers, and when those answers have been gathered and assessed, then there will be a decision on a commitment to Digital Radio.

Not unsurprisingly, quite a lot of their questions are about making the right technology choices, and this is where I believe they’re being let down by some technologists.

Technologists love to create technology. There is always a better solution to a problem, a better framework to work within, a new concept, a new library. COMET, XMPP, Ruby on Rails, Java – technologists thrive and survive on new ideas and new, cleverer, solutions to problems. German technologists are no exception, and their innovations have been exceptional – DAB, MP3, RDS – all have significant input from German technologists, and my personal experience is that they have some incredibly agile and intelligent technologists. I would trust my life with some of the guys at Fraunhofer.

But sometimes technologists’ ability to create endless solutions means uncertainty and instability. And sometimes technologists create problems in order to create solutions to justify their existence.

One of the difficulties I see my German colleagues grappling with is whether they are using the right technology for Digital Radio. Should it be DAB? Or DAB+? Or “DMB Audio”? Or DAB-IPDC? Or DXB? Or IBOC? Or…..? Nobody wants to make the wrong decision, and buy into an out of date technology. And whenever it looks like the number of choices is narrowing, a technologist pops up and throws another suggestion in the ring. And, of course, they all claim to offer the ultimate, most future proof, elegant, scalable and cheapest solution.

Of course, I can help a bit. Don’t use DAB. It’s out of date. But if the UK had hung on in 1998 waiting for a “better” technology, we’d never have got on-air, never sold 7m+ receivers, and never made a success of DAB. And at least we have a relatively obvious migration path to DAB+.

Indeed, it analogous with buying a computer. Just accept that whatever you buy will be superceded in 6 months (or indeed, may already be superceded). If you keep waiting, you’ll never buy a computer and you’ll still be scratching on stone tablets when everyone else is sending e-mail and chatting on Facebook.

It’s a shame that some technologists can’t be a bit more market aware, and look beyond their ability to cook up new ideas and bring a bit more balanced assessment. It’s not providing a solution to keep creating new solutions. Answer more questions, provide more data. Which solution is most elegant? Most spectrum efficient? Most backwards compatible? Most closely matches the requirements list? (Is the requirements list reasonable?). How much will devices cost? Who will be building them? When will they be available? And of course, who else is using this technology set?

I hope the technology issue in Germany can be closed down fairly soon. They’re definitely suffering from too much technology, and it’s not helping. If they can slim down the candidates against a list of reasonable requirements, say “no” to people trying to bounce new/unproven solutions onto them, and make a technology choice, it will tick another box on the check-list marked “Things To Do To Launch Digital Radio”.

I also caught up with Sebastian Kett and Michael Reichert from SWR, home of the rather marvellous DasDing. A blog on what they’re up to will follow….

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