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The Myers Report and DAB Digital Radio

BBC Radio Holby co-shares with Classic Gold

BBC Radio Holby co-shares with Classic Gold - from a Casualty shoot in 1999

John Myers’ report “An Independent Review of the Rules Governing Local Content on Commercial Radio” was published yesterday, and it’s well worth committing time to read through in detail.

If you’re outside the UK (or even outside the UK Commercial Radio Industry), you might be wondering why a report into the regulation of local content on commercial radio should involve Digital Radio.

I will very briefly précis 95% of John’s report. Commercial radio has got into a perilous state financially, through a combination of over-farming (too many new licences, not enough associated audience/revenue growth) and increasingly burdensome costs. The currently regulatory system promulgates this situation, and without urgent change, there is a real risk of sectoral failure.

John’s remit was to consider the regulatory environment surrounding local content, but Digital Radio (and digitisation in general) is brought to the report in a number of places. (I’m not going to talk about the issues and suggestions in respect of local regulation that John raises in his report).

A key tenet of the report is that the current regulation of localness is wholly inappropriate for the media environment of 2009 and  onwards. John mentions several times that it should be considered unreasonable for licensed radio operators to work under local content regulation when Internet radio does not. In my opinion, John has somewhat over-played the threat – current and future – from Internet delivered radio to support this argument. I believe the issue is that listeners are seeking choice and innovation, and that if the licensed industry can’t/won’t provide that, people will find it from new operators. In this respect, the method of delivery is largely irrelevant. Existing operators stream over the Internet, and new services can start on DAB (but see below too). It probably depends on how much choice you have to deliver to remove the incentive to buy IP-connected radios to seek out new stuff, and your estimation of the value that exists in the “long tail” of radio. In my view, radio operators have all the tools the need to reach out further down the long tail if they believe it’s profitable to do so, and have a unique advantage of doing so on both IP and into protected spectrum which will deliver universally into the fixed and mobile domains (that would be DAB then). Even with broadband penetration heading towards 80%, Internet listening is very very small, and dwarfed by DAB listening.

Whilst outside the direct remit of his report, John clearly identifies that costs and revenues are a problem for the radio industry. Growing numbers of stations have raised sectoral costs, and revenues are declining. Changing the regulation of localness would relieve the industry of some costs, but John is right to identify that the implementation of DAB has saddled the industry with burdensome long-term costs that it can’t support in the current environment. I agree. He reviews the rapid licensing policy of DAB, and notes that many of the multiplex areas licensed were barely able to profitably support one or two local FM services, let alone the addition of a local multiplex. Understandably, John has avoided detailing why DAB is so expensive, but you’ll know from my previous posts that I have a much more unequivocal view – the multiplex spectrum plan was too complex which drove up the infrastructure complexities, and the transmission provider offered prices that now look very unattractive. John suggests that the costs of DAB can be made more realistic by re-planning into a less complex configuration – which I hope also translates into fewer sites running at realistic power levels. This is a sound recommendation which I hope OFCOM and DCMS take note of and get moving on quickly. Sadly, DAB+ still isn’t mentioned, meaning it remains taboo in the UK. That’s a mistake in my opinion, but as I’ve said before, it’s an issue of frightening complexity, and I can understand its omission.

The most contentious recommendation, in my view, is this. John recommends that one of two things should happen; EITHER Broadcasters should not be allowed to run multiplexes OR the cost of multiplex access must be more directly regulated by government to ensure it remains at or below the equivalent analogue cost. I’m very much hoping that John made the first suggestion for it to be roundly and loudly rejected from all sides, leading adoption of the second approach. In all honesty, I don’t think either is optimal. It has long been an issue that the gatekeeper regulation of multiplexes included a loophole that allowed the gatekeeper/broadcaster to attempt to cross-subsidise the carriage of their own stations. This probably made sense in the heads of the accountants, but was a dismal failure on the ground. The high cost of DAB carriage deterred many new entrants (although that could also have been policy – deliberate or accidental) and thus multiplexes lost money in reality, even if the paper accounting looked OK.

But it had a far more detrimental effect, and one that goes to the root of the slowdown of DAB in the UK, and the failure to see enhanced revenues from going digital. DAB did not grow and flourish with new and innovative services that consumers were expecting. And neither did it deliver new things to advertisers in any volume. In short, the policy hindered the very innovation that the industry needed from digital. The reason that no data services launched in the UK was due to an unholy interplay of effects around multiplex ownership, costs and infrastructure capabilities.

I can understand John’s call for broadcasters not to be gatekeepers, given the circumstances, and maybe it will always be an unresolvable conflict of interests for a broadcaster to try and encourage competition and innovation against its own stations. I think the Australian model of multiplex ownership and regulation bears careful inspection, to see if it can be exported to the UK. I don’t believe it’s right for there to be no involvement from broadcasters in the development and management of their digital platforms, and I don’t believe an infrastructure provider operating in isolation has the right incentives to manage costs, coverage and functionality appropriately.

In respect of costs, the evidence is that DAB, when deployed in a sensible configuration, is naturally lower in cost than the equivalent FM coverage. Indeed, that was the whole point of DAB; to replace 6 identical sets of infrastructure costs with one single cost carrying 6 stations – but we lost sight of this somewhere. If DAB is replanned properly, and if the cost is equitably shared amongst the users (without daft “uplifts” for functionality), it will be cheaper than FM. Of course, someone has to bear the risk of the whole cost before it’s shared out, and that’s a tricky one to answer. But if broadcasters want to address the long-tail with more services, they’ll have to bear more costs of infrastructure and spectrum, and it’s naive to deny that.

John’s report uses the opportunity to address many of the failures in the UK’s DAB deployment, and I’m glad to see his recommendations concurring with many of my own suggestions. Now the report has to be acted upon by OFCOM and DCMS, and swiftly.

Digital Radio changes and causes change

DAB Radio everywhere (CC) Nick Piggott @ flickr

It’s been a difficult time for radio lately, and for digital radio doubly so. Since Fru Hazlitt made her dramatic announcements on 11th February 2008 (the “2/11” for Digital Radio), it’s been a rollercoaster ride, consisting mainly of the scary bit of going down very fast and being apparently about to shoot off the edge of the tracks to certain death.

Radio is contracting. The contraction that means I’ve been saying goodbye to lots of colleagues, and that’s seeing many small analogue services go out of business, is also squeezing what can be done with digital radio. The enthusiasm for digital radio has evaporated, as the costs of an ambitious network build-out became crushingly apparent, and the revenues that should/could be generated from digital haven’t arrived (or been hit by a contracting industry).

Going Digital had a profound effect on the UK Radio Industry. The regulatory policies that set up Digital also shaped the analogue licensing regime, and committed the industry to investments stretching over long periods of times. The Digital Radio envisioned by the people who set it up doesn’t fit well with the plans of the people running the radio industry now.

Something had to change. If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that my hope was that some deal could be arranged to make the cost of the network more managable, and that the industry could reorganise itself to plan an inherently more cost-effective plan for digital. Some of that would have involved changing the digital infrastructure to reflect real-life requirements.

And now, nearly 14 months after Fru’s big announcements, and with Global the biggest commercial operator in the industry, things are changing.

The first big change is that Global is doing a deal with Arqiva, the transmission provider, which will see Arqiva take over DigitalOne (the national multiplex operator) and NowDigital (the local multiplex operator). This makes Arqiva a licence holder in their own right, and it’s the first time that multiple DAB multiplex licences will not be held by broadcasters (Ayrshire is already owned by Arqiva, due a regulatory anomaly when EMAP purchased SRH). In return for Arqiva taking over the multiplexes, Global will only pay for the capacity it uses, reducing the costs of transmission. As both DigitalOne and the NowDigital muxes are rather empty, this is a fairly considerable cash saving.

I think Arqiva have got a good deal. They will have to compromise their financials for a period of time, but I suspect that in the mid-term, demand for DAB capacity and infrastructure will grow, if not in the current configuration, then in something than can be met using the infrastructure currently in the D1 and Now networks. They now hold spectrum licences, and that puts them in a good position when it comes to any network replanning. The relationship has been spun on its head.

OFCOM has provided the other big change in the Digital landscape. Their submission to Digital Britain has proposed radical changes to the UK’s regulatory regime, both analogue and digital, in response to the changes that the financial difficulties of the previous year have brought. A lot of the headlines have focussed on the proposals by OFCOM to dramatically change the analogue regulatory regime – reducing the burden of producing local content; allowing the emergence of quasi-national brands that could theoretically have the scale to provide plurality to the BBC; explicit recognition that smaller commercial licences may never be viable financially. This seems to make the assumption that local brands cannot challenge the BBC’s dominance, or may not be able to hold onto the revenue to stay alive.

In my opinion, the most interesting and positive statement is that D2, which failed to get to air as a Single Frequency Network (akin to D1), could come back to life as a series of regional networks with effective national coverage. One suggestion is to blend the existing regional muxes together to create D2. This recognises that a true national SFN isn’t massively commercially valuable, and that’s a great move forward in my opinion.

OFCOM firmly supports continuing with DAB Digital Radio, whilst at the same time acknowledging that other solutions will appear over time. I think the likelyhood of LTE/4G technologies becoming a primary broadcast platform is slim if DAB continues, but there’s no doubt that a converged Broadcast+IP solution is looking increasingly important. This conviction from OFCOM and Government that DAB is staying is very beneficial to Arqiva and the other multiplex operators.

One theme recurrs. In both OFCOM’s and RadioCentre’s submissions to Digital Britain, as well as in the interim report itself, there is talk of using DAB to deliver innovation for radio. That innovation needs to harness the data capabilities of DAB to provide something new, enhanced and reflective of a more complex multi-media world, and more capable multi-media devices.

There has been virtually no innovation, despite 10 years of DAB in the UK.

There’s no lack of ideas for new services, but the barriers to making them happen have been many, high and hard to scale. Broadcasters have to pay for their capacity, and that makes it hard to justify speculatively taking more than the bare minimum to carry stereo audio. The multiplexing equipment is old, and doesn’t reliably support functionality beyond audio (including a number of other very important DAB features). There is a classic chicken-and-egg problem, where manufacturers won’t build receivers to support enhanced functionality because broadcasters won’t commit to services.

That needs to change.

Global Radio launched a series of applications for the Apple iPhone (for which my team deservedly got a SONY Radio Award nomination). These applications feature RadioVIS – a simple visualisation layer for radio. Whilst I’m not going to tell you the stats, I will say that the amount of visuals delivered is considerable and demonstrates a commercial opportunity. But as well as delivering visuals to the iPhone we also publish them as DAB Slideshow into 16kbit/s of 95.8 Capital FM’s DAB stream. (Admittedly, it’s taken 10 months work with Arqiva to get the right interface to the multiplexer).

It won’t take much more work to get the technology right, but launching innovative services needs to start with a commitment to face a digital future and start moving analogue to history. It looks like OFCOM can make that commitment, but will the radio industry follow suit?

There’s getting it wrong – and there’s being downright obnoxious

ryanair by jayfreshuk @ flickr

Someone was very nice to me this week, and said they like the occasional dip into the world of aviation that I indulge in. So here’s a short one, linked to last week’s blog on a major international airline brand that appears to have snafu’ed their engagement in social networking.

No sooner had I committed that to teh Interwebs, than another not-major-international-brand but nonetheless well known airline was similar managing to spectacularly mis-engage with the on-line world. Step forth Ryanair.

The major-international-airline was trying to be good but got it wrong, largely through over-enthusiasm and mis-understanding. They’ll survive, apologise in a way, and ultimately probably won’t damage any perceptions of their otherwise immaculate, excellent and courteous service. One cock-up won’t damage the reputation that all their employees uphold with admirable consistency.

The problem with Ryanair is that they know they’ve behaved badly, they don’t care, and their opportunity to put their hands up and apologise appears to have been turned into an obnoxious rant.

And that’s the Ryanair brand in a nutshell.

Ryanair specialises in being obnoxious. It’s not clear who from Ryanair provided the official response:

Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion. It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won’t be happening again.

“Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel.”

however those words could have sprung lightly from the lips of Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s CEO. Indeed, just the following day, something almost as amazing did spring from his lips:

One thing we have looked at in the past and are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future.

We are always looking at ways of constantly lowering the cost of air travel and making it affordable and easier for all passengers to fly with us. I don’t think there is anybody in history that has got on board a Ryanair craft with less than a pound. What do you do at Liverpool Street station at the moment [when] you need to spend a penny? I think you have to spend 20p to go to the toilets.

or, indeed, the delightfully customer focused opinion of:

I have no patience with the Luddite approach that says people don’t want to use their mobile phones in-flight. You don’t take a flight to contemplate your life in silence. Our services are not cathedral-like sanctuaries. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things.

If you make obnoxiousness one of your brand attributes, if you make it a core emotion of the business, then it’s not much of a surprise that the employees radiate it so readily too.

Ryanair have prospered by being cheap. They drive volumes of traffic through low-costs, and persuading people that flying to anywhere, no matter how ridiculous or remote, is “a good thing”. They benefit from smaller airports offering them good commercial terms, in order to bring incoming passengers to their particular region of Europe (and it usually is EU States, you’ll notice). The majority of people who step onto a Ryanair plane have low-expectations, and often they’re not disappointed.

But do they have to be obnoxious too?

Easyjet seem to do well, and are viewed far more positively than Ryanair. I don’t like the LOCO model (for various reasons) but I’ll fly Easyjet (and AirAsia and VirginBlue and JetStar and South West and TED etc.). I won’t fly Ryanair – I won’t reward obnoxiousness. (#)

As we hit an economic downturn, aviation is bleeding to death. If you think last year’s roll-call of airlines going under was bad, this year’s could be even more dramatic. Last year was knocking out the weaklings and the also-rans – this year, someone big is going to go down.

I feverently hope that Ryanair get punished for being obnoxious. It would be a real justification of the value of the soft-elements of brand for Easyjet to make it through because they’re generally pretty good guys, and for people to turn their backs on Ryanair and their atrocious attitude to their customers (actual and potential).

Bootnote: Someone else has applied Ryanair’s unique approach to revenue generation to the obligatory safety card, to humorous (but possibly also clairvoyant) effect.

(#) I have one exception. I will fly FR on the BRS-DUB route, because it’s neither time nor cost efficient for me to get over to LHR, and it’s not very environmentally sound to do so either. FR use a relatively modern, efficient 737-8 on that route, and loadings are naturally high. It’s a legacy route that has pre-dated O’Leary’s tenure at FR, and so whilst it’s a nasty, demeaning and irrating experience, it’s only so since FR went LOCO. Added to that, I make dammned sure that I get their “1p” flights, pay with a debit card, and don’t spend a penny with them anywhere else, thus ensuring that by the time they’ve paid APD and PSC in the UK and Ireland, they’re losing about £35 of real money on me, which makes me feel much better.

Photo: ryanair by jayfreshuk @ flickr – who’s clearly experienced once of their flights before

Google exits radio – is that good or bad?

What's Google Doing With Radio? (cc) James Cridland @ flickr

Google’s exit from the radio arena this week wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise. It was a bold move to try and port their successful advertising business from the Internet to radio, and to do so without primary control over the inventory they were selling and the environment they were selling into. But it didn’t seem to be getting the prominence in the marketplace to make it successful.

Google created a relatively rich technology ecosystem in order to support the on-line trading of  radio airtime. They acquired dMarc, and set about re-branding and reworking that company’s playout system, to relaunch it as Google Automation, with integral support for Google’s APIs for advert insertion. They worked with the vendors of other major playout systems to extend the number of playout products supporting Google ad insertion. They created a pretty good, simple, on-line interface to allow people to book airtime campaigns, and monitor the performance of them. And the Google Creative Marketplace allowed advertisers to find creatives to make their radio adverts.

There are some things that I don’t think we’ll really miss. I was really disappointed with the Google Automation product, which I didn’t think was worthy of having the Google brand applied to it. When I think of Google, I think of innovative UI design, clever APIs, and rich-meta data. Google Automation didn’t live up to those expectations, and I think there are much more capable and exciting playout products in the market.

Google tried to sell radio advertising as a commodity; buyers didn’t know what stations their ads were going to run on, and they only had vague controls over formats, demographics and geographic area. That Google was unable to commoditise radio is probably good news. It means that brand values, production values and market prominence are still important, and that advertisers want to be heard in the right environments.

But there are some things that I hope radio can hold onto after Google has left. The principle of on-line trading of airtime is really interesting, and could mark a change in the way that radio is sold, in the same way that airline shifted their business from selling through travel agents to selling through websites. The cost of processing those orders and transactions could fall, which means more money going to programme making, and maybe even more money going to make better radio adverts. It might even open up radio to new advertisers, particularly in the small non-metro markets that find life particularly hard.

I thought the Creative Marketplace was a very cool idea. I wonder if it will live on in another guise? I like the idea of many individual, freelancing creatives being able to connect with so many prospective customers – a trading floor for creativity. Great idea, and a shame for it to get lost.

The technology behind the project was good, as you’d expect from Google. Radio airtime scheduling is still somewhat archaic, often involving the nightly transfer of flat text files, and it’s difficult to really deliver on radio’s ability to be immediate. Google created a set of APIs to schedule and insert adverts in near real-time, and get the reconciliation back almost as quickly. Ad breaks were filled just minutes before they were played out, which is the way it should be. We should keep that as the benchmark for airtime scheduling, giving us an almost unique position in mass-media.

Google have said that, whilst they’re withdrawing from radio, they will keep this technology and develop it for personalised advert insertion in on-line streaming. I’m not sure that will give them any more success. If the radio industry is smart, it will create formats which will deliver targeted demographics with low wastage, meaning that the efficiency gap between broadcast advertising and personalised advertising will be fairly narrow, reducing the financial incentive for advertisers to get into the altogether smaller, more complex and more opaque world of streaming advert insertion. (Let’s see how Spotify does with that one).

One thing I was surprised about. Google did some clever technology, but didn’t really introduce any innovation into radio advertising. They didn’t seem to offer a service that encompassed advertising on-air and on-line or on the radio station’s website, something that is more routine in radio companies own sales forces. Why didn’t Google see the opportunity for synchronising visuals, audio and interactivity and offer radio stations a streaming “tuner” that did all that for them? That kind of differentiation might have given them the edge they needed.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect Google to have a vision for innovating with radio advertising. That responsibility seems to rest with us.

Photo: What’s Google Doing With Radio by James Cridland @ flickramusingly taken at NAB in 2006 in Rome, IIRC.

Mis-engaging with social networks

BD Embraer 145 being de-iced at MAN

As you might expect, there are a few places on the Interwebs where people who fly now and then meet up to discuss the important things in life; destinations; routes; fuel surcharges, and how to maintain status with as few flights as possible.

But it’s interesting to see how the airlines and airports approach engagement with these communities of informed, eloquent, often high-spending and influential people.

Some airlines have created official representation on the forums. Often it’s someone with a passion for the web, who is pretty connected in their own life and works in or around the customer facing bits of the company. They participate in the community like anyone else, are subject to the same rules and moderation, but make it clear that they’re representing the airline/airport.

My experience is that these airlines are brilliantly super-serving their most influential customers, and also helping their own companies. They can see gripes arise, and often offer solutions or answers within hours, before pens have gone to complaint letters and grouses have spread around. Some of them will help people out with specific problems, and I can’t tell you how valuable I’ve found that personal attention when the system has gone wrong. (Incidentally, I always send those airlines a hardcopy letter to commend their online rep, and the airline’s commitment to engaging with the on-line community).

But the airline benefits from to it too. Now and then, someone might spot a loophole in the rules of a fare or routing, which allows people to accumulate vast numbers of miles, or fly on ridiculous routes, for tiny amounts of money. Those loopholes get quietly closed, and whilst there is sometimes a little “oh, don’t talk about that here, they’ll close the loophole”, generally it’s accepted that the airline rep is only doing their job by bringing it to the airline’s attention.

Some airlines/airports have unofficial presence. That’s where someone in the airline/airport is probably acting unofficially, and so has to stay very guarded in what they say. It’s nonetheless very valuable for them to watch what’s happening, and occasionally intervene with a salient point. The regular contributors know who they are, and the lurkers rarely come out from under cover.

But this week, one of the airlines is in the process of getting it spectacularly wrong. I’m not going to name the airline, but they’re a leading global brand and they ought to be smarter than this. For a start, the contributor has as his handle the name of the airline, correctly spelt and punctuated. He’s assured people he’s not connected with the airline, but then occasionally refers to information that would be hard to source from anywhere else. But what’s really annoyed people is that he’s not authentic. He’s always talking up the airline, saying how great the promotional fares are (even when they’re stinkers), how great the on-board experience is, and how well they compare against other airlines. (He seems to fly a remarkable range of airlines).

He’s being rumbled as a stooge because he chipped some information into a thread that could only have authoritatively come from within the airline. He is getting pilloried (for which I feel sorry for him personally), and his airline is a facing a mixture of laughing for being so cack-handed in their engagement, and indignation that they “have sent a spy into the camp”. Their failure to be authentic and upfront with their presence is backfiring on them.

I can’t understand what they were thinking. Surely they must have understood what the outcome would eventually be? Maybe these are the companies who need consultants to advise them how to engage with the web? That’s pretty sad, when all the have to do is be real, honest and authentic.

Interestingly (and with that exception) no matter how irate, heated or insulting the conversations on-line become, rarely does anyone attack the airline/airport rep. Indeed, the community will often turn savagely on those who start having a go at the rep. And it’s interesting because that’s often not the case when radio gets discussed on-line; in those situations, often the poor radio person who sticks his head in the door will get it torn off and thrown back at them. It’s a shame, because it means that it’s that much harder for the people who are passionate about radio to have a decent engagement with those people who are making radio. I don’t know how to change that.

Footnote

Tangentially linked, I was playing around with SQ’s IFE on the A380 this week, and stumbled across their “The Chart of XXXX” albums. They’re pseudo-albums listing the 10 most-popular tracks, by UK Chart sales, of each year from 1960-2005. Whilst many of them are really very good, it became clear just how useless the charts had come by the 1990’s when around 5 out of the 10 tracks were novelty songs. When I reached 1989, the warning signs were set – 3 entries from Jive Bunny. That’s where radio programming trumps sales stats.

DAB – Doing It Properly

Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr

In response to the publication of the interim Digital Britain report, I sent out this twitter

That prompted a small flurry of @nickpiggott replies asking me “so, what does doing it properly mean”?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that we have the most successful implementation of free-to-air digital radio anywhere in the world. There is no discussion, no set of statistics, no spin that can deny that fact. More people, by number and by percentage of the population, use free-to-air digital radio in the UK than anywhere else. Over 8m cumulative device sales, without a penny of device subsidy or subscription. Planet Rock has almost half the audience of Absolute Radio.

So what we have is not broken, is not a failure and is not dysfunctional.

But – it could be better. We’re only using a fraction of the capabilities of the system, and the implementation was conceived without any reference models, and without any similar paradigms. Which is why it tended to follow the FM model that preceded it by 40 years (25 years in commercial radio).

I tend to work by setting a clear vision of what I want to achieve, and then working out how to get from here to there. If you start from here, and look only at the obstacles, you’d probably give up. (Maybe that’s what’s happening in other countries?). But if you think what you could do, I find it easier to find the swerves and jumps that get you round the problems. Or hope they go away before you get to them.

So here’s my manifesto for doing it properly. My manifesto, not that of my employer. And not representative of all or even part of the radio industry.

Coverage “Turn It Up”

We need higher field strengths for DAB. To really realise its strategic value, and its unique benefits, DAB has to be receivable on the move on a handheld device tucked in someone’s pocket as they go through cities – walking down streets, and walking round buildings. And that means much higher field strengths. Probably about +12dBuV / +14dBuV on what we have now. For normal people, lots lots more.

And we need to do that by using a smaller number of transmitters using much higher ERPs (emitted powers). The whole economic model of “broadcasting” is lost if you work on a network of hundreds of sites to cover the same area covered by 1 FM site now. That’s oversimplifying things, but the general principle is sound. We need to cut the number of DAB sites in use now, and crank up the power of those remaining dramatically.

Why wasn’t this done in the first place? Ah, well, thanks for asking that, because it leads into the next point…

Spectrum Planning “Make It Simpler”

OMFG the UK DAB spectrum plan is complicated. We (the radio industry) made such a rod for our own backs, and loaded ourselves down with so much cost with the current spectrum plan. The current spectrum plan is derived from the original FM plan,and was somewhat influenced by the decision to tie FM licence renewals with commitment to get services on DAB.

We tried to replicate the FM coverage model on DAB. Wherever there was a significant analogue licence that was eligible for renewal, it needed to have an equivalent DAB multiplex area. Problem is, there’s about 100 FM channels in the spectrum 87.5MHz to 108MHz. We tried to duplicate an FM plan which was carefully juggled to fit into 100 FM channels, and pretty much replicate it in 5 DAB channels. Um, can anyone see the problem here, because we didn’t spot it 10 years ago. (Yes, hello pedants – I’m aware that’s an oversimplification, but ride with me on this one).

That created the most fabulous spectrum plan, for which hat tip to the spectrum planners for almost managing to do it. Incredible.

The problem was, it relied heavily on cramming services close together, both in the same areas (adjacent channels) and in adjacent areas (co-channel channels). So the amount of interference from each multiplex had to be virtually negligible outside of its area, which in turn meant using lots of low power transmitters rather than a few bigguns.

My favourite example of this is the London III and Sussex Coast multiplexes, which are both on channel 11B. They are separated by less than 30kms. Can you imagine having two FM stations on the same frequency, with coverage areas only 30kms apart? No. Madness.

The best thing we can do is re-plan to put spectrum where it’s needed, and have bigger mux areas with wider geographic separation. It makes little sense to have Wiltshire split across two different frequencies. (I could tell you why, but you’d be in disbelief).

A re-worked spectrum plan would create less adjacent and co-channel interference, and would support fewer transmission sites at higher powers.

But, you say, how do you fit all those radio stations that used to be on 3 separate muxes onto 1 bigger mux. Well, funny you should ask, because…

DAB+ “Make It More Spectrum Efficient”

Flameproof suits on, mail filters armed, incoming abuse expected.

DAB+ isn’t about making radio sound nicer, because consumers don’t want it, and it doesn’t help anyone. The best use of DAB+ would be to allow a smaller base of infrastructure to support the same number of radio stations. That way, the cost of DAB(+) to the radio industry goes down, we can put much higher powered muxes on-air, and everyone gets a better service.

It’s a big hairy problem though. It keeps me awake at night (not kidding). I would not like even 0.01% of the 30% of UK households who have DAB radios to email me to tell me how they feel about making their DAB radio defunct. It’s not fair, and being fair is an important part of radio IMHO. I don’t have a simple plan on how we would do this, so lets file that under “needs more thinking”.

If we did get to DAB+, we would almost certainly find that we could get the radio stations on-air, and have some spectrum free, and seeing as you’re asking, I’ll tell you what we’d use it for…

Differentiation “Do something exciting”

DAB is insufficiently differentiated from analogue currently. Yes, there’s lots more stations, and its tune by name, and you get some (semi)-useful text. But it’s not the evolution it could have been. DAB has some immensely w00t technologies in it, but the broadcasters have to implement them, and educate listeners about them, BEFORE the radios get built. I take my hat off to the original spec writers, because it’s a joy to converge DAB with IP. Did you know there’s a whole “over the air” HTTP transport layer, that will move seamlessly between IP and DAB? Or a highly efficient way of distributing traffic messages. Even an IP Multi-cast tunnelling option. All there, all waiting to be used.

If we did some of this stuff, I’m sure DAB would get more exciting, and would get into more exciting devices. And, incidentally, become more valuable commercially. Which can only be a good thing. (BTW – have been told what I can talk about on the Touch Radio device, so just need to think and write about it).

Summary

So there’s my “doing it properly” 4-point plan.

  1. Better coverage through higher powers on fewer transmitters
  2. Simpler Spectrum plan with fewer muxes covering bigger areas
  3. More efficient spectrum use with DAB+
  4. Differentiation through data services

Only a few things stopping these changes

  • Infrastructure / transmission contracts which go on for a number of years still
  • Big one-off cost of changing around all the transmitters and masts
  • Complex transition from existing spectrum plan to a new one
  • Replacing ~8m DAB radios with DAB+ ones.
  • Staying alive through the recession.

But, never fear dear readers, because there is light. Digital Britain confirms what the educated know, which is that DAB is fundamentally a great technology, it’s just the current implementation that isn’t brilliant. Consumers just keep loving DAB, and it’s easy to get some data services and some new radio stations back on the air in the current infrastructure (and credit to my team for pulling some clever workarounds out on the data issue). There’s lots of clever people working in radio, who can make this happen.

I will be looking at how Australia get on. They’re starting fresh in May, and they’re going for the 4-point “doing it properly” plan on day 1. They’ll go rushing past us, and set the standard for DAB rollouts from here on. Who knows, maybe it will trigger the second Aussie invasion of radio? Grab the esky, and get the beers cold.

Photo: Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr

Economy Crashes, Digital Radio Keeps Going

Woolworths New Malden the Last Days (cc) Fred Dawson @ flickr

The DRDB has released Christmas 2008 sales figures for DAB Digital Radio, and I think they tell a remarkable and positive story.

Obviously, if you were a bit bitter or a bit cynical, you’d focus on the fact that growth slowed down in 2008, and that “only” 2.08m Digital Radios were sold in 2008, rather than the target of 2.6m which was set in January 2008

I think they’re remarkable numbers.

Since January 2008, the bottom has fallen out of the world’s economy. I’d love to know of any comparable sector that has achieved its annual sales figures set “pre-crash”. People are losing their jobs, and even if they’re not losing their jobs, they’re reining in their spending to be on the safe side. Consumer electronics, as a sector, is down 5% in value (year on year), despite a slew of “must-have” gadgets.

But amidst the economic turmoil, the uncertainty, and the cutbacks, people are still buying radios – digital radios. 510,000 sets in the run-up to Christmas, and by all accounts, catching some retailers unaware. The sector shrank 5%, but DAB sales grew by 3%. That’s not a blip, that’s bucking the trend.

It’s interesting, because 2008 couldn’t have been a worse year in Medialand for DAB. The headlines have been dominated with sad, bad, and depressing stories on the fate of DAB. It’s been a struggle to find the shafts of sunlight.

Some of the DAB turmoil has been felt in the real world too. theJazz and a number of other stations disappeared off the dial. FUN Kids had to drop its coverage on DAB outside of London after being disposed of by GCap. Planet Rock’s future was uncertain, also when GCap announced its disposal. More and more voices were heard extolling the virtue of connected radios.

I hope that 2008 was DAB’s Annus Horribils, and that 2009 will mark the starting point of a new phase of DAB in the UK (of which more as soon as I find out what I can talk about publicly). There’s no doubt that whatever sales predictions were created for 2009 will need revising in the light of the current economic situation, and it will be miraculous if we manage to beat 2008’s numbers in 2009.

But maybe this is the point where we see that DAB is resilient, and something that consumers really want to have in their lives.

Photo: Woolworths New Malden the Last Days (CC) Fred Dawson @ flickr

An E-mail to Which?

Query (CC) amortize @ flickr

I wrote this e-mail on Saturday 24th January, to the editor of the Which? website. Which? is the UK’s consumer champion.

Dear Sir / Madam,

I would like to raise an issue with the article on your website entitled “In Store Sales of DAB Radio Could Be Misleading“.

I fear that you have been the victim of a scare campaign, orchestrated by one or two people.

It is true that some stores have had boosters installed to provide a good quality signal to DAB radios on display, but that should be framed within a context that virtually all electrical goods stores provide specific “repeated” signals for Televisions (and in Car Audio shops, for FM Radios too). In particular, you will find that all Digital TVs and Set Top Boxes are connected to cables and boosters from an external antenna. Therefore it seems unreasonable to say that sales of DAB could be misleading; the same is equally true of Digital TV, and I’m sure you will remember that there were issues with this a few years ago.

Electrical retailers tend to be based in metal-skinned buildings, creating what’s known as a Faraday Cage effect – which cuts off all radio and tv signals. It is therefore a necessity to bring signals in through repeaters for any radio or TV device to work at all.

The Radio Industry provides a very reliable “postcode checker” for coverage, at www.getdigitalradio.com – which you have failed to mention, presumably because the person or people who “tipped you off” about this story didn’t see fit to tell you the whole story. In addition, I am not aware of any retailer or manufacturer who has refused to take a return (of a properly boxed device) if the consumer subsequently finds they have inadequate reception.

I am disappointed that you don’t seem to have checked these facts with anyone from the industry representative bodies, and may I suggest that you contact (-) at the DRDB on (-) to get a more balanced view. I look forward to seeing an amendment to the article imminently.

Regards

Nick Piggott

I’ll leave you to find the offending blog article for yourselves, as they aren’t worthy of linking to.

Update – 26th January

The Which? website has been updated today to include a response from the DRDB, which does now include reference to the postcode checker, and explains why it is that some retailers need to have repeaters to get signals into the building. Well done Which? for updating so promptly.

Photo: Query (CC) Amortize @ flickr

Balancing Content and Distribution to make a “hit”

Alpine HD Radio car display by fatcontroller @ flickr

I’ve been partly inspired by a post by Marc Ramsey entitled “Maybe the last time I’ll ever write about HD Radio“, and partly by a post by James Cridland entitled “CES 2009 – HD Radio’s Additional Channels“.

In different ways, they both make the point that HD Radio (in this example) is a technology capable of good things, of things that could rejuvenate interest in radio, but is being let down by some implementation errors. At face value, Marc seems unimpressed by the technology of HD Radio, but reading deeper, in his post he makes the point that the radio industry isn’t using HD to deliver any content that wows people. Similarly, James describes how multi-channelling, the technical capability that would allow HD Radio to deliver new content, is so appallingly badly implemented that it’s pretty much useless for consumers.

For HD Radio, read DAB Digital Radio.

Admittedly, multi-channeling in DAB isn’t a pre-requisite for delivering extra content, which is a tremendous relief, because the implementation of secondary services on most radios UIs is dismal. I don’t recommend trying to tune into BBC Radio 4 (LW) for the Morning Service on a two line LCD display with a rotary knob. It’s only because most DAB radios use a small handful of silicon providers that consistency has happened by mistake, rather than planning.

But in both cases, the failure to “wow” people isn’t a technological one. It’s a failure by incumbents to do radical things with a new platform, largely out of fear of disrupting the old one. Incumbent companies are big, and have lots of people who know how to “win”. If you’re a salesperson who knows they can pay the mortgage by hitting revenue targets, it’s potentially more sensible to stick on the side of visible decline, than leap headlong into the unknown world of change.

It’s no secret that I believe the ways we should be “wow”ing our listeners are:

  • Commercially sustainable choice of radio stations that are clearly different from streamed music and jukeboxes.
  • Visualised radio is an evolution of radio that listeners “get” the moment they see it (no pun intended). Sometimes listeners, who seem to have fewer preconceptions, get it more than people working in the radio industry.
  • Interactive radio which recognises that listeners can’t actually interact most of the time they’re listening to radio.
  • Mashable radio that makes it much easier to let listeners dip in and out of radio and consume it on their own terms.

Making this kind of change happen isn’t easy. There are challenging business, technology and content problems to overcome, and it’s not an easy win. It looks and feels easier to “win” on the Internet, as the Internet and connected devices are somewhat less frictionless in terms of technology and business models. But I think that the harder wins are more valuable, and whilst both HD and DAB are doubtless harder wins, they have unique value in preserving the role of mass-market radio in the world’s media mix.

Photo: (CC) Alpine HD Radio Car Display by fatcontroller @ flickr. My trip to CES was sadly not to be.

On the road with my PURE Highway

Skating at Sparkasse Platz, Innsbruck, Austria

I was given a PURE Highway some time ago, to do some road-testing with. It’s been in the car since then, but I’ve only just got round to mounting it properly and pulling the cabling through. I also took the opportunity to upgrade the firmware to the latest version (1.3).

In all honesty, the firmware upgrade was not fun. The device driver installation took absolutely ages, which I suspect was a combination of Windows not quite believing what was connected, and the device driver being hard for Windows to find. Lots of disk searching. The upgrade application was quite happy to backup the existing firmware, but kept freezing when blowing the new firmware to the device. A bad thing. After some fiddling, I ended up falling back to connecting the device to a USB 1.0 port which meant it ran slower but did finish properly. So, new firmware installed, we’re on the road.

Great Britain – Bristol to Dover

The reception of DigitalOne and the BBC muxes was really pretty good, and consistent along the M4/M25/M26/M20. The usual problem areas (D1 is punched out by adjacent channel interference from NOW Digital Swindon on the approach to Membury Services, nothing is very happy around Folkstone and Dover).

The local muxes were much more hit and miss. Bristol benefits from having a hefty site at Dundry, which really helps. Swindon/Wiltshire is a pain, because it’s split across two frequencies which means rescanning at 10 minute intervals. Berkshire is not great along the motorway. There’s a dead chunk of local coverage between Reading and Slough. London I was OK around the M25, London III not good. Really not good. In fact, pretty much only got good London III on the sector from the M23 to the M26, and that’s largely because of Bluebell Hill and Reigate. Kent is pretty good until you get near Folkstone.

The lack of DAB-DAB service linking (on the mux and on the device) is a pain. If I wanted to stay with XFM, I kept having to rescan. I shouldn’t need to do that, but the service linking is not properly signalled.

France – Calais to Strasbourg

Total blackspot. Not a thing. I kept scanning the Highway, and it kept having a good old go at decoding the many Band III television signals. Honestly, when was Band III cleared for DAB? 10 years ago? If I was being harsh, based on what I heard on FM, I probably wouldn’t want to listen to the same stuff on DAB either. What on earth do they do with their audio processing? I’ve never heard anything as aggressive even in the United States, and that’s saying something.

Switzerland – Basel to St. Gallen

Yay for the Swiss. The moment we went over the non-border (The Swiss joined the Schengen Agreement recently, which means the border is a principle rather than a 5km queue. If the Swiss can do it, still can’t understand what our problem is), the Highway picked up 12 services. It seemed to (correctly) ignore the DAB+ services without a hiccup. Drove all the way through Switzerland listening to Swiss Pop (CH-POP), because I’m a bit of a sucker for bubblegum pop when I’ve been driving for 13 hours. Coverage was superb, and the audio quality was great too, demonstrating that with the right codecs even 112kbit/s can sound very very good. Lucky them for being able to upgrade to the latest Coding Technologies codecs.

One area that isn’t covered yet is the tunnels. FM coverage is repeated through them, but DAB isn’t yet. I suspect if I had a hybrid DAB-FM radio it probably would have swapped between the two correctly, but I don’t, so can’t say. Boo to Ford for putting integral radio units into their cars and not leaving anything resembling a DIN slot for something else. (At least Ford have announced that DAB will be a line-fit item from 2009. I’ll probably buy another Ford, as this one is good, and DAB line-fit swings it for me).

Austria – Hohenems to Tirol

Austria has a somewhat token involvement with DAB. There are two DAB sites on-air. One in Vienna, and the other on Patscherkofel, which is the primary site for Tirol. The Patscherkofel site covers most of the A12 motorway which links Germany and Italy. If one was being curmudgeonly and uncharitable, one might say that it’s there so that people driving from Bayern (DAB) to Alto-Aldige (DAB) don’t find reason to surmise that Austria is stuck in the past – 1976, for example. No. It’s a remarkable mux, as it’s only carrying 5 stations, creatively encoded to make sure that they almost completely fill the mux. If you’re an audiophile, I’d recommend going and sitting yourself down in Tirol to enjoy the 192 and 224kbit/s of Ö1, Ö3, FM4 or Radio Tirol. (But just overlook the fact that I suspect the site is satellite fed at 256kbit/s, OK?).

The coverage is patchy, and really only kicks in once you get within sight of Innsbruck (if you’re coming from Voralaberg). There’s also no DLS – not even a default message – which is a bit of a surprise.

It would be unfair to criticise the DAB coverage in Austria. It’s not a launched service (only a trial), and coverage on FM is a real challenge in Tirol. In a former job, the station I worked at had 16 sites, on 16 different frequencies from 89MHz to 107MHz to cover 500,000 people (badly). RDS AF was invented for Austria. At my ultimate destination, there is virtually no FM coverage whatsoever – all radio is received via satellite to TVs.

Total distance – over 1,500kms. Percentage covered by DAB : ~50%.

(To be fair, if I’d gone the other way – Calais – Aachen – Stuttgart – Ulm – it would have been closed to 85%, but I have more to do in life than sit in queues of Germans over the Fernpass. Although it would have been £120 cheaper in tolls).

And the same on IP?

Well, what would have happened if I’d done the same trip listening to the radio on IP? We’re clearly spoilt for 3G coverage in the UK, because it was very very patchy through France, in-between in Switzerland, and pretty horrid in (an admittedly less populated part of) Austria.

Coverage issues aside, I was in the car listening to the radio for 15 hours, of which 12 hours was outside the UK. Assuming a bit-rate of 48kbit/s, that’s a total data consumption of 253 Mbytes outside the UK. (I have a 3GB bundle inside the UK). Despite Mme. Redings rantings, my roaming data still costs me £3 per MB, so that would have been a bargain £759 for a day’s radio. aAnd £759 for the journey back.

However, I “benefit” from having a local pay-as-you-go SIM in Austria, which charges at “just” €2,50 per MB. So based on using a local SIM, that would have been €633,-.

The ability to drive across Europe listening to the radio is not something we should ignore lightly. It is often overlooked, because radio companies in Europe are all singularly nationally focused, and rarely look beyond the borders (and to be fair, when they do, it’s usually not a success). Maybe as an island-nation we don’t put much thought to it? But I’m a listener, a Britain and a European, and I do travel across the continent. I can’t imagine doing a 15 hour drive without radio.