dab digital radio

Les Français et La Radio Numerique

When unexpected events happen, you have to ask “Is it a conspiracy or a cockup?”

I suspect we’ll be asking that question again shortly when the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel announces which Digital Radio standard France will adopt.

There was an immensely shoddy debate at Le Radio about DAB Digital Radio, which descended into absolute farce when a member of Radio France began to practically insult the President in WorldDAB in French, knowing full well that there was no translation into English. This in turn provoked some peer retribution; they may have agreed on his views, but his professional conduct was highly questionable.

When considering French broadcast standards, I refer the reader to SECAM. This should set the context.

One would usually assume that the input factors for choosing a Digital Radio system would be those that lead to a successful transition to digital, with migration for existing broadcasters, a wide range of well-priced receivers, interesting new services – basically all the components that have driven Digital Radio growth in the UK and Denmark (DAB) and the US (Sirius / XM).

But what if that wasn’t the case. What if the choice of a Digital Radio system was influenced by those eager to see its demise? What if they wanted to protect their vested interests, and being already the majority broadcasters, had an undue amount of influence over the decision and the opinion formers? What if they threatened, economically, supporters of competing ideas? What would happen if you deliberately chose a lame duck, flying the face of facts and professional advice?

Take time to brew on those thoughts, because we may soon be asking those questions.

dab digital radio

Virgin and Sky – Platform Wars, Net Neutrality and DAB Digital Radio

The “Virgin Media v. Sky” spat has generated a great deal of polemic, quite a lot of headlines, and moments of absurdity.

Much of the coverage has focused on the financial aspects of the deal, speculating on how much advertising revenue Sky will lose versus the number of subscribers who will defect from Virgin Media. Virgin seem to have the sympathy of the media industry, but I don’t see many subscribers sticking up for Virgin; boards are full of people saying they’ll switch to get Sky One. (That I find hard to understand).

Far more interesting is the underlying issue of platform access, and how it affects all content providers and platform providers, across digital TV, the Internet, and radio.

Prior to the recent outbreak of hostilities, Sky had forced down the payments it gave to Virgin Media for Virgin’s content channels (Living TV, Bravo etc.) from GBP30m to GBP5m a year. Virgin Media had to swallow this, because without the 8.5m Sky homes, their business models fell below the critical mass needed to support them. The speculation is that Virgin would have lost GBP80m in revenue from being off Sky; in reality, without Sky the channels simply would have ceased to have any viable audience and gone under. You could argue that Freeview might have helped (and was this the reason for E4/Film4’s miraculous conversion from Subscription to FTA?), but capacity on Freeview is tight and there’s little in the way of a viable subscription infrastructure.

Virgin Media were held ransom by Sky for access to their platform. Sky has the bulk of the market for subscription TV. When Virgin tried turning the tables, they didn’t have the market size to follow through on the bluff. Sky will take the loss on the chin, and continue their aggressive advertising to get people to dump cable for satellite with renewed vigour and focus.

This has parallels with the calls for and against net neutrality. There’s no doubt that genuinely impressive on-line experiences (or even just simple VoIP) demand Quality of Service, and it’s that element that costs money. My 10MBit/s link is great (declaration: I’m a Virgin Media/Telewest customer), and generally runs at 6MBit/s. But I would gladly either contribute a bit more, or see my peak bandwidth decline, if only it were consistent and subject to less jitter. The VoIP can be great, it can be awful – I want to pay for consistency.

The concept is that service providers who need QoS to their users should pay for it, and then pass the cost onto their users (if they choose to). But this involves actively monitoring and prioritising packets on the net, installing private circuits, and a billing infrastructure. It all begins to look a bit like the Sky satellite platform. Some elements of Sky are tightly regulated, but as the Virgin Media/Sky situation has shown, there’s always some unregulated element that can be exploited to turn the screw on undesirables and force them off the platform. I believe in net neutrality, but I’d like to pay for QoS.

How does this affect radio?

Radio has approached the fragmentation of platforms in a pretty open-minded way (in the UK at least; it’s not the case in the US, and that in turn drove the demand for satellite radio). We pay fees to platform operators and in turn they pass our little old audio signals onto their platform base. We’re even available on mobile phones, because the networks don’t filter out public network traffic (except Three, who stop everyone doing anything useful, and wonder why they struggle to get decent ARPU off their network).

This largely seems to happen because:
a) it’s not hard work for the platform operators
b) it doesn’t use much bandwidth
c) they could use a bit of pin money (I believe it pays for the Christmas Party)
d) consumers have a surprisingly disproportionate passion for radio relative to items a)-c).

So our simple multi-platform life exists beneath a rock, largely undisturbed because platform operators simply don’t think about it.

What would happen of one of the operators decided it wanted to run radio stations. Maybe they thought they could deliver a better, more integrated, more modern experience to their subscribers than the existing brands? (It might not take much thought). Given the state of media stocks generally in the UK, they might just buy someone to do that.

But surely their next move would be to help their own businesses by blocking competitors? Or at least, incentivising use of their own services. Radio can’t take it for granted that we’ll always get a level playing field on carriage, and how will our business models look if we suddenly lose 10, 30 or 50% of audience through being priced out of a platform? (The BBC’s FreeSat project looks like a splendid insurance policy against this kind of event if it is operated as promised, and gets a decent household penetration).

This should help radio broadcasters justify supporting DAB Digital Radio as a platform more. The spectrum is provided free by the government, on a public service basis, to keep radio relevant and in business and connected directly to its listeners without falling foul of platform operators’ agendas. Granted, there are a few rogue DAB Digital Radio multiplex operators who make Sky’s behaviour look positively reasonable, but they’re in the minority and will eventually go out of business given a bit of competition. The majority of multiplexes are broadcaster consortia, led by their members who are also their content providers. The best multiplex businesses are those which seek to apportion cost and investment fairly between the users, but limit their aspirations at that point. This allows content providers to innovate and compete with each other, taking full advantage of the substantial technical opportunities in the Eureka 147 spec.

The detractors of DAB often forget to look at the big picture. Whilst nitpicking about this and about that, they’re handing over control of their distribution and their margins to platform operators who have no sentimentality about radio. They should take up the offer of free spectrum, build some modestly priced and effective digital networks, and stay connected to their own listeners.

real life


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I’d better get it out of my system.

It’s 15 years, near enough, since I got my first domain. (OK – sub-domain of I’m still paying £11.75 a month for it, which is frankly ludicrous, but goddamit, I’m emotionally attached to it now. I still get mail on it – from spambots, from ex-colleagues, from friends I’d lost touch with (intentionally and unintentionally). So I fork out £10+VAT a month for Internet nostalgia. As it’s a demon sub-domain, I have no alternative but to keep paying them.

It’s 20 years since I started communicating with people digitally.

I wrote BBS software for the Acorn BBC B. It was fun, and threw me in the deep end of dealing with customers and users. I ran a BBS, on a “Ringback” service on my parents’ phone line. I squeezed the code into about 25k of RAM, playing lots of memory tricks. I hacked up old 1200/75 baud modems. We had backdoors for friends (the cassette tape relay), and trapdoors for abusers. I ran a little business (XFS) with Dan Mills and Chris England, and it was OK.

My two favourite functionalities in XFS were “gatewaying”, which allowed us to create nested microsites within the main site (sub-domains anyone?); and mail exchanging where many of the boards running XFS would dial each other up and exchange mail with each other (SMTP?!) twice a night. One day I’ll suck the XFS source code off a 3.5″ disk (on one of my existing Arcs) and give myself a good solid dose of nostalgia and sit there rocking gently and raging at today’s bloatware. 25k of RAM.

Simple code is beautiful code; simple code is functional code; simple code is reliable and easy to maintain. Maybe by over-extending the object/property/method model, and relying so much on libraries and modules, we’ve lost sight of that simplicity?

real life


I’m not sure if this is wise.

It’s my 15th year on the ‘net, and my 20th year in a connected world. The on-line world is unrecognisable from the days when I lumbered onto the ‘net by dialling into Demon on a London number, with SLIPdial, from an Acorn Archimedes, at the blistering speed of 9600 baud.

Whilst many things have changed, and nearly all for the better (an un-metered 10Meg connection at home), the nastiness and vitriol of Usenet seems to have got even worse.

Past experiences on Usenet have made me cautious, and indeed dismissive of public expression of personal opinion on the Internet. The Internet is forever. An impulse expression lives on and on, to be searched and tagged and quoted and re-purposed. On-line vendettas are pursued beyond the socially acceptable norms; being threatened on-line is no less stressful than being threatened on the street. I’ve seen the true depths to which personal expression can sink, and I don’t want to be exposed to it again.

From a commercial point of view, I am responsible to my employer (to whom readers may ascribe my opinions, despite statements of my own independent thinking) to give them my best thinking and use that to competitive advantage. Where does musing on a concept in a blog turn into spilling the company’s secret?

So I’ve previously justified to myself why, on balance, I shouldn’t be blogging.

Why have I changed my mind? I’m not sure there’s one clear reason, but a few of them would be:

  • It’s professionally expected for someone in my role to blog; I don’t want people to draw a conclusion that I’m a luddite or a n00bie. Quite the reverse; my caution is because I was a n00b 20 years ago, and got flamed and threatened then.
  • The law understands the virtual world better, and can now extend its influence into the murkier depths (and members) of the on-line community. I can’t imagine how my local Constabulary would have even begun to understand the concept of Usenet in 1993.
  • I want to talk more with people thinking like me around the world. It’s great having real colleagues around the world to throw ideas around with, but the geography means a lot of travelling. I guess I expect people to use Google Alerts the way I do to seek out bloggers talking about things I’m interested in.

So hello. Again. I hope it’s more fun the second time round.