dab digital radio radio technology

IP + Radio – On a knife-edge between triumph and disaster

How to deal with web abusers by geranium @ flickr

There’s been lots more coverage recently of “WiFi” Radios; radios which stream via the Internet rather than picking up a broadcast signal (FM/AM/DAB). Consumers seem to be enthusiastic about them, and media coverage reflects that enthusiasm.

As it seems impossible for anyone in media to avoid making comparisons, often there’s a line somewhere in the article about DAB being “in trouble”, and that “experts are predicting that internet streaming will over take DAB”.

That would be a disaster for the radio industry, and one that’s avoidable. But more on that in a second.

It’s understandable that consumers are enthusiastic about IP-connected radios. It would appear that consumers are highly motivated to seek out choice in their radio listening, which suggests that they’re not getting that choice now. It’s also pretty clear that regardless of whatever leaps forward in technology occur, people like listening to radio on devices, not on computers. They want something radio-like, and aren’t yet ready to converge on a single-handheld media device.

DAB has delivered that choice in the past, but for a variety of complex reasons, stations have come off the platform, leaving it offering little differentiation against analogue. So if consumers are disappointed by choice on analogue, they’re unlikely to be thrilled by turning on their new DAB radio. That’s something the radio industry could fix, but the barriers at the moment are largely commercial and contractual, as well as a bit of ideology as well.

So if IP-connected devices offer the choice that consumers apparently want, isn’t it the future we should promote?

Firstly, let’s check in on that assumption of choice. We know, even in the analogue domain, that much of it is perception. Media platforms are often promoted and compared on a straight “number of channels” basis; only recently has the relatively saturated market of multi-channel TV opened up a new front on “quality” with the promotion of HD. (I find it ironic that DAB went the other way around – maybe we’ll come full circle with high-quality audio once again becoming something to attract mass-market consumers rather than just connoisseurs?). But even with this amazing choice, consumers tend to gravitate towards a small number of stations. RAJAR tells us that the average listener listens to about 3.2 stations a week, roughly 25% of what’s available to them in the typical British city. The growth in number of commercial radio stations in the last decade (many of which now seem to be unsustainable) hasn’t grown commercial market share, time spent listening, nor particularly the total stations listened to figure. So it would appear that so far choice hasn’t grown listening, and therefore hasn’t grown the total revenue coming to the radio industry.

But how much choice do consumers need, and how must does it cost?

Here’s where it gets dangerous for existing radio companies. Offer too little choice (on FM/AM/DAB) and consumers will seek out the IP-connected alternative. Once they have a IP-connected radio, we have to be on it. Allow that platform to grow too much, and we’ve got a cost and competition headache that will make whatever issues with DAB look trivial. As a defence (and referring to the eponymous “long tail model”) it should be able to produce reasonable choice at low-cost on DAB, which might be sufficient to keep the demand for IP services in check.

If IP is the future, why have no existing broadcasters committed to it as their sole digital platform?

The difference between the “experts” quoted in the media and the established broadcasters is knowledge. Broadcasters have the current and forecast data on their audience sizes, the infrastructure costs for supporting that listening on IP, and the existing relationships with the IP networks. When you start modelling costs, they are breathtaking. The radio industry might end up spending ten times more on transmission than it does now. For a small start-up like or Pandora (and yes, they are small), having 50-60% of their costs as distribution is probably OK. But for the mainstream, it would be suicide. You also have to consider the effects of introducing to the picture a whole new array of gatekeepers sitting between broadcasters and listeners, looking to make some money. Net Neutrality is going to be a real battle ground in the future.

(At this point, the “experts” usually start going on about multicast solutions and so on. As far as I’m aware, multicast has been technically possible for 10 years. But the reality is that it is so fiendishly difficult to implement multi-cast AND Quality of Service as a pair, across diverse networks, knowing that every single intermediate router needs to properly support both, nobody is seriously considering it on the public Internet).

If the detailed numbers on current streaming volumes were published, people would be staggered. “Experts” would look rather silly. RAJAR gives us a hint now, saying that only 2% of listening is streamed – that’s about 20m hours a week. And most of that is to the BBC. Despite 60% availability of broadband in homes and offices, internet streaming is still tiny. But the widespread perception, even in the radio industry, is that IP streaming is bigger than DAB.

The radio industry needs to avoid IP streaming becoming the sole standard for accessing radio.

The costs of IP would make the mass-market radio model economically impossibly; doubly so in the mobile space. The growth in IP-connected devices would help new entrants like and Pandora reach the mass-market at speed, and further erode time spent listening. Consumers would end up paying to listen to radio, either directly or indirectly. Maybe that is the future, maybe that’s what people want. But should we accelerate it by forcing consumers into the IP domain to get choice?

IP is an ideal technology partner for broadcast radio.

“Experts” seem to love pitching technologies against each other. IP is better than DAB. WiMax will trump everything. DVB-H will create world peace and bring fresh-water to the thirsty. Etc. They seem to think that one technology will eventually do everything, making all others irrelevant. But I don’t see them advising the use of a 2kg hammer to put a screw into timber.

IP is a great technology for radio if it’s used for what it’s best at. Let’s use IP for delivering personalised advertising, capturing interest in things people hear on the radio, lightweight mobile interaction, on-demand, super-niche and personalised audio services. Broadcast (DAB) is excellent for the heavy lifting, delivering masses of streams reliably and in a timely manner, across wide areas at low costs (both for broadcasters and consumers). The two are complimentary, like screwdrivers and hammers. You need both in your toolkit. We need converged radios, not IP-only radios.

The radio industry should avoid getting trapped in a world where consumers expect radio solely via IP. It’s in our power to incentivise people to buy radios that support an intelligent convergence of broadcast and IP, and not IP alone. The economic incentive for existing radio broadcasters is survival. It doesn’t get clearer than that.

All opinions are my own personal ones, which may differ from those of my employer. Photo is (CC) Geranium at flickr. Oh, and Merry Christmas too.

radio technology

Internet Media Device Alliance


Streaming radio has been around for a long time, and it’s a popular activity. The latest RAJAR “MIDAS” survey shows that 31.7% of the adult population in the UK has listened to the radio via the Internet. As the workplace has evolved, the picture of the workshop tranny has been replaced by PCs and discrete bud headphones.

As with any technology, there’s now a wide range of ways to stream radio. There’s different formats (MP3, Windows Media, Real, HE AAC), different transports (HTTP, RTSP, MMS), and no agreed way to list a radio station, or describe its streams.

That wasn’t necessarily a problem when people listened on PCs, and went via the radio station’s own website to access the stream. Missing codecs were downloaded, players could be installed, and with a bit of persistence, you could get most things to play. (Although the BBC really got it in the ear for being such an early and long-standing devotee of RealPlayer).

But all the evidence is that people like listening to radio on, well, a radio. DAB is in half as many homes as have broadband internet, but gets five times more listening. The PC is conspicously not forming the centre of our entertainment universe, for various reasons.

Streaming devices have existed for a while. Do you remember the Philips Streamium? There’s certainly interest to buy connected devices, and that interest is growing as prices fall.

The problem is that putting new codecs and transport support on a hardware device in the field (possibly literally) is not trivial. Hardware devices are not like PCs (thank heavens), and need to work within more clearly defined parameters.

Which is why standardisation would be a good thing.

The IMDA (Internet Media Device Alliance) is a collaboration of manufacturers and broadcasters who are going to make using a streaming media device as simple and consistent as possible. Something a consumer can pick up and use within minutes.

It’s going to involve some compromises, and some tough discussion. It simply isn’t possible to support everything in a sub £100 streaming device. Some limits will have to be set that exclude some existing devices and broadcasters. Not everyone will get exactly the functionality that they need.

But the prospects for broadcasters are very good. We’ll have a clear idea of what formats, transports and bit-rates we should be using. It will mean a way of consistently advertising our stream-locations, programme schedules, live and on-demand content. We’ll be able to provide visual information and simple interactivity to a standard, rather than having to tailor everything on a device-by-device basis (as is the nightmare in the mobile space, due to the somewhat patchy adherence to behaviours by certain manufacturers).

You can find out a bit more about IMDA at the website. If you’re a broadcaster or a manufacturer, do get involved, because this is another great opportunity to Agree on Technology, Compete on Content.

real life technology

Conferenced Out? You need fast acting RATE!

(cc) This guy is boring by Narisa at Flickr

Autumn is certainly the conference season. If you’ve trooped round Le Radio, NAB Europe and The Digital Radio Show, all in the last week, you’re probably feeling like you’ve had enough death by powerpoint, and thinly disguised sales pitches for “strategic consultancy”.

But let me encourage you to come to a conference with a difference. Well, many differences in fact.

Radio At The Edge (RATE) is the radio conference which looks at how technology is changing the business of radio today, and what the leading-edge trends are that we could be exploiting in the coming year(s). This is where we discuss the new world order, whether the new world order has in fact already collapsed in a heap, and if the new world order is a complete load of rubbish and we should all go back to sending status updates as smoke signals and poking using sharp sticks. And leave tweeting up to birds.

So it’s not your normal, dull, play-16-songs-in-a-row-and-have-nice-jingles type radio conference.

It’s also darned good value as radio conferences go. £200 for a day’s worth of high value information, and a fair amount of entertainment too. With names like Iain Lee, Richard Herring, Andrew Collins, you’d pay for the comedy alone – if it wasn’t also that the bill includes the world’s most tech-literate reporter and prolific blogger, Rory Cellan-Jones, Peter Davies (Head of Radio from OFCOM), and Leo Laporte – Chief TWiT.

Lastly, there’s drinking at the end, and drinking in a proper pub, with proper beer – not a god-awful overpriced chain hotel dribbling sad pints of generic beer at a crowded bar staffed by communication-challenged staff. Did I mention I’d been to NAB Europe this week?

So I can’t recommend it enough, other than to say you should probably attend for the novelty of being at a conference on radio’s future that I’m not talking at – but my good colleague Robin Pembrooke most certainly is.

Radio At The Edge, Monday 10th November, Westminster. All the details and that all important registration form are here

Photo (CC) This guy is boring by Narisa at Flickr

Hat tip to Andy on my team, for pointing out that it’s not this Monday…

dab digital radio

No More Channel 4 DAB

Channel 4 Television Headquarters, Richard Rogers Development by .Martin. @ flickr

There has been a tidal wave of reporting, comment and speculation today about Channel 4’s decision not to become a radio broadcaster. The implications of their decision came through in two parts. Initially, it became clear that Channel 4 were pulling out of 4 Digital Group, which effectively dealt a death blow to the national multiplex licence that the group (which also included Bauer and UBC) had won in summer last year. Then, later, there was confirmation that Channel 4 would be scrapping its radio division entirely, ending the possibility that one or more of Channel 4’s stations might end up on the DigitalOne multiplex. There has been substantial amounts of speculation and comment regarding the discussions between DigitalOne, Channel 4 and OFCOM, and the issues are so complex, it’s hard to see how any of it could be entirely accurate.

The news that Channel 4 won’t be participating in DAB Digital Radio is, of course, not great. But Andy Duncan was careful to point to Channel 4’s own financial difficulties as being a key determiner in their decision, not DAB Digital Radio as a platform. I wonder how much the C4 Board were working out how to justify cuts to their core, established, business (and a certain amount of pleading for government assistance) as the same time they were launching a radio division. I believe Andy when he says that Channel 4 went into this with all good intention, and are just being clobbered by the economic situation. So maybe it’s not “never”, just “not now”. It’s a shame, because they had some good ideas (particularly for data services) – but they don’t have the monopoly on those.

Some of the current doom-mongering is happening because so much expectation was heaped upon Channel 4. If it became perceived wisdom that Channel 4 would invigorate the Digital Radio business, then clearly a “no show” tends to suggest the opposite. But I would disagree; indeed, some projects in DAB have been held back waiting for the outcome of the Channel 4 / Second National Multiplex story. There are now fewer unknowns to deal with, which hopefully makes decision making on re-inventing DAB somewhat clearer.

In my opinion, not building a second national digital network is a very good thing for the radio industry. The last thing the industry needed now is to be facing another long-term and expensive commitment to transmission infrastructure; infrastructure that would provide capacity that currently isn’t needed. Remember that the second national multiplex licence sprang into life (well, “was slowly conceived”) when DigitalOne was full and getting fuller. But we have capacity now – both on DigitalOne, and on local and regional multiplexes.

There are other benefits too. DAB in the UK needs a shake up, and one that (hopefully) the right combination of DRWG, OFCOM and the broadcasters will give it. To make really effective (and necessary) changes requires as clean a sheet a possible, and it would have been awkward to have a D2 multiplex just a few years into its existence whilst all the other multiplex licences reach potentially useful breakpoints (both in their licence terms and their infrastructure contracts). If DRWG recommends replanning, there’s no easier time to do it. Similarly, at some point we will need to look at the opportunities that DAB+ might bring to us.

Radio is suffering at the moment. Small stations are struggling to stay above water, and everyone is feeling the impact of a turbulent economy. Channel 4’s arrival might have stimulated some renewed interest in radio advertising, but in the short term they probably would have been grabbing revenue off other broadcasters, and doing that in lean times is hard on everyone.

When reading the doom-and-gloom headlines, and some of the melo-dramatic reporting (and “commentary”), it’s easy to lose track of the fact that DAB is a pretty good consumer story. In the four years since 2004 we’ve moved household penetration from 3% to 27%, and receiver costs have dropped to sub £20. (Admittedly, the 5 years before that were pretty dud). DAB accounts for 11% of radio listening, which means it’s underpinning about £60m of revenue for commercial radio.

The threats to DAB are understood and fixable. There are no problems that are insurmountable, and no threats outside the control of the UK radio industry. No other technology has suddenly appeared that makes DAB look irrelevant. Most people believe that the decision (if there is one) is whether radio stays analogue or goes digital using DAB – I don’t hear anyone seriously postulating using an alternate digital technology.

I’m reconciled to the fact that there’s going to be lots of negative commentary about DAB over the coming weeks, and a lot of it won’t be very accurate. Channel 4 not committing to DAB at this stage won’t kill it, but when the dust has settled, it might just make it stronger.

Photo: Channel 4 Television Headquarters (CC) .Martin. @ flickr

dab digital radio DMB radio technology

Standardising the standards – why DAB Digital Radio profiles became essential

DAB Digital Radio Receivers Lineup (C) DRDB 2008

The Eureka 147 project, from which DAB Digital Radio was born, bequeathed us a very feature rich, powerful and flexible multi-media broadcasting platform, neatly optimised for small, mobile, battery powered receivers. In fact, as a piece of technology, the core EN 300 401 spec and its associated standards (EN 302 077 etc.) are often imitated and are hard to beat. For mass-market radio broadcasting, I believe it is an unbeatable technology.

The core standards were written as a pan-European project to create a digitisation path for radio; an early example of Agree on Technology, Compete on Content. Whilst there are daft things in there (over 10 categorisations of speech programming, only 2 categorisations of “Pop” and “Rock” music), the core has been on-air since 1995, and remains virtually unchanged.

Being fine technologists, the original specification writers left lots of hooks and places to extend the specification. That’s why DAB has so easily incorporated DAB+ and DMB (Mobile TV), and spawned a myriad of interesting data applications – Slideshow, Broadcast Website, EPG, TPEG, IP over DAB (to name but a few). Whatever problem you have to solve, EN 300 401 provides a pretty good starting point. Without over-simplifying things, if you can write packet-orientated IP applications, you can probably write applns for DAB too.

But somewhere along the way, the community lost track of the real reason to Agree on Technology – and it’s receivers. It’s all very well writing the coolest ever DAB application, but what if nothing can receive it? E P I C F A I L…..

I’ve grumbled enough about the individual nations of Europe (and elsewhere) tinkering around without thinking about the implications of their actions. Nuff said.

The outcome was that too many manufacturers, particularly the automotive manufacturers, just found it too confusing and risky to build receivers. Last time I looked, there were three different audio transmission systems, three different ways of visualising radio, two ways of adding browseable content, two ways of transmitting text information, two ways of downloading Java apps to the receiver, and nobody seems to have agreed completely yet how to transmit traffic and travel information. Not only were receiver manufacturers confused about what to support in their devices, broadcasters and regulators couldn’t decide what to do either.

In an attempt to get some direction back into the matter, WorldDMB have produced (after due consultation with the relevant stakeholders) a set of standard receiver profiles, which attempt to balance functionality, complexity and cost, whilst retaining a goal of European-wide interoperability.

  • The Profile 1 receiver is pretty simple – audio (all three types), simple text display. The Profile 1 receiver is the market entry receiver that demonstrates that DAB Digital Radio is a mass market technology anyone can afford. I would hope to see €15,- receivers available Europe-wide within 5 years.
  • The Profile 2 receiver is, in my opinion, where it’s at – or more precisely, where the money is at for the broadcasters. Profile 2 requires a colour screen and supports simple visualisation (amongst other things). If Profile 1 is analogue radio made digital, Profile 2 is proper digital radio. Profile 2 ought to be attainable by all “radio” manufacturers, and Profile 2 (automotive) has to be a slam dunk when you see what people like Audi have in store for our cars.
  • The Profile 3 receiver will probably never get built. Seriously. Profile 3 is the all-singing-all-dancing-it-does-everything-the-licensing-costs-will-be-horrendous profile. What I expect will happen is that a device that already includes pretty much all the relevant technology (and nasty licensing fees) will use Profile 3 to integrate DAB into the device. Think Nokia N-Series, Apple iPhone, Google Android (because I certainly am).

Hopefully by creating some more definite “standard receivers” from the standards, it will enable to confident decision making and commitments. Without it, the market would have stalled in hesitation and uncertainty.

So the ball is back in the court of the broadcasters to broadcast services that consumers will want to buy new radios from manufacturers to receive. That’s natural order of these things. And hopefully, in the future, my colleagues from across Europe will be talking together about how to evolve radio, so that we avoid another clearing-up session in 5 years time.

(Photo – (C) DRDB – Digital Radio Development Bureau)

dab digital radio technology

Three Countries, Two People, One Message

Radio Galan, Sweden, 2008

I’ve been enjoying meeting colleagues from all over Europe and beyond in the last couple of days. Myself and James Cridland were invited to talk to a series of conferences in Sweden, Norway and Denmark about how you can combine radio and technology in interesting ways for listeners and advertisers*. Of course, to ensure that lots of people came to the session, it needed a buzzword, so it acquired the title Radio For The Facebook Generation. (You can download the script here).

The lineups for the conferences were really exceptional; indeed, more diverse and international than many of the conferences in the UK. Our fellow speakers included Dave Foxx (Big name producer from the US), Nik Goodman (UK Consultant – see James’ blog for a review of his session), Geoff Lloyd (Presenter at Absolute Radio), and Mark Ramsey – a guy who’s blog I’ve been following for ages, as he gives the US perspective on the effect that new technology is having on radio. Mark’s presentation was very impressive – hopefully he’ll publish some of it on his blog. On the huge stage and screen in Sweden, it really had impact. You might disagree with some of his analysis, and there’s plenty of debate about the speed of change, but I doubt anyone was left feeling that they could keep ploughing the same furrow for the next ten years.

James and I covered a bunch of subjects and projects that have come out of radio in the UK – things that we believe are innovative for listeners and advertisers*, and demonstrate how radio can use technology sympathetically to really improve the experience without undermining the core attributes that radio is loved for. So we talked about mi-XFM, RadioPop, Tagging, Visualisation, EPG, Text Information, Olinda – all useful milestones in the timeline of radio’s development.

What we both wanted to emphasise is that not only is it possible for public service and commercial radio companies to collaborate, it’s essential for the future development of radio. Individual companies alone can’t influence the direction of technology (not even the BBC), and consumer electronic companies need to see European sized markets to start integrating radio cleverly into devices. So I hope that what we showed was the practical benefits of Agree on Technology, Compete on Content.

It was also great to get questions from our host countries – three countries geographically and culturally close together, but with some differences in their radio industries. Norway has a strong national commercial radio station (P4 – nice building in Oslo), Denmark is doing brilliantly well with DAB Digital Radio, and Sweden has a really good selection of private stations. In all the countries, the private sector is in the minority against well-funded and heritage public service broadcasters, who don’t appear to face as rigorous questioning about the value of their public service as the BBC does in the UK.

For the first time, the green shoots of interest in Digital Radio are showing from the private radio sector. Their absence (either planned or unintentional) from Europe’s Digital Radio Plans (hereto dominated by the PSBs) has, in my opinion, been a real inhibitor to change. In a separate session, Joan Warner from Commercial Radio Australia brought a new, non-European perspective, about the benefits to commercial radio of digitisation, which in turn prompted questions more thoughtful and insightful than I’ve heard before in these sessions.

So I’ve come away from Scandinavia more hopeful than I ever have before that the private radio sector will be included (or will include themselves) better in the transition to digital, and can see that collaborating with their competitors and public service broadcasters in some areas in no way compromises their right to beat the daylights out of them in the ratings.

* Obviously, I was talking about the commercial benefits and benefits to advertisers. Even with the atmosphere of collaboration, I don’t think the BBC would be in a position to champion commercial benefits.

aviation real life

Fares, Yields and Recessions

Our Easyjet Boeng 737-700 on the tarmac at Bristol

Regular acquaintances of mine will know that I have an interest (“Bore for Britain”, I hear you shout) in aviation, and I have infrequently peppered this otherwise technology orientated blogged with occasional aviation events of note.

Aviation has some parallels with radio. It’s got big fixed costs, you need relatively skilled people to make it work, and the inventory is highly perishable. Once your plane has taken off / once your adbreak has started, you’ve made all you’re going to make from it.

Inventory management has been revolutionised in both industries, but the aviation industry is way ahead of radio and provides some useful pointers for radio. I know many people in aviation, at the big airlines, who laughed openly at the idea that someone would hop onto the web and buy their own ticket. That, they said, was far too complicated. That’s what we have agents and sales people for, because ordinary passengers could never cope. Big – BIG – mistake. Their failure to provide a low-cost entry point allowed Easyjet and Ryanair to enter the market and bring aviation to whole new demographics. Google Adsense for Audio is doing the same, and every radio company needs to think about self-provisioned audio advertising, and quickly.

But back to aviation. Unlike radio ad breaks, you can’t stretch a plane to stick a few more seats on when demand rises, so yield management is absolutely paramount. The algorithms that manage yield in aviation are e=mc2 compared to radio’s 1+1=2 inventory management (and yes, that’s even taking into account the most clever ad revenue management systems). Aviation algorithms process with thousands of inputs – absolutes, and trends. Current and historic. Your radio station may keep track of major sporting events, but airlines track events, conventions, and more.

The recession / economic slowdown is going to test those algorithms to the limits.

LOCOs (LOw COst Airlines) work absolutely on a high load factor, low seat-cost basis. Their central marketing pitch is “fly somewhere for £1”. If they sell 50 seats on a 150 seat plane at £1, the perception is “wow – cheap airline”, and never mind the people who are buying the last 10 seats at £150. Industry analysts watch LOCO load factors like a hawk, because they know that LF’s below 80% are seriously into danger zone for the whole LOCO business model. Not only do the last 10 seats make all the money, the last 30 passengers would also have paid £300 to check bags in, and about £100 for in-flight beverages. At some airports, the “marketing assistance” (backdoor discounting) only happens above certain numbers of passengers.

Full service airlines work differently. Yield is the key here. If a flight pushes back at 50% load factor, that’s fine, because that aircraft might have 3-4 business passengers onboard paying £500+, 20 passengers paying £350, 20 passengers connecting into long-haul flights paying £700-£800, and only 10-15 passengers on the £39 promotional fare. Promotional fares for full service airlines are marketing devices, not the foundations of the business model.

Ryanair, Easyjet et al. claim they’ll do better in a recession, because they’ll stay cheap and people will move from full service airlies. I beg to differ. The experience on the LOCOs is below that of a proper airline, and the majority of fares are moving towards parity. The kind of people who discretionally fly on Ryanair or Easyjet will keep their money to pay for electricity, petrol and food. No more jetting off to Prague for the weekend.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Easyjet and Flybe have been clever enough avoid the “Value Brand” perceptions of a LOCO, and have the right routes and additional benefits to hold business travellers in, although they’re still going to be paying more to fly. And the full service airlines can hold onto yield, because they treat their customers relatively well, and offer proper services like interlined tickets and unified schedules.

If Ryanair go under, I’ll be up the front cheering. Never has an airline (and its Chief Executive) treated its customers with such disgust and disdain. And they don’t do much for their staff too, by all accounts. Michael O’Leary’s “gobbier than thou” approach might have been acceptable a few years ago, but now it just personifies Ryanair as the yobs and louts airline, which doesn’t care a sh*t. I hear from more people who have paid “not £1” fares and had terrible service – when for £20-£30 more, they could have flown on a reputable airline. When the Chief Executive of an airline accuses BAA of being “rapists”, you know he’s gone too far – too much pressure, maybe?

There will be far fewer airlines in Europe in three years time. The Boeing idea of thousands of direct routes, used to justify the development of 787, is looking very shaky. In that respect, the concept of Airbus’ hub-to-hub future on which A380 is centred looks much more realistic, and environmentally sound. In broad terms, Europe will centre on a few hub centres, operated by either OneWorld or StarAliiance. (I have my doubts about SkyTeam’s strength beyond KL-AF). Once the airline industry has consolidated, and has optimised the size and capacity of its fleet, it might look commercially attractive again.

Maybe that’s another lesson for the radio industry too?

Photo: Our Easyjet Boeing 737-700 on the tarmac at Bristol Airport by alistairmacmillan@flickr

dab digital radio technology

PURE EVOKE Flow – Initial review of a converged radio


Along with a number of luminaries of the radio and consumer electronics world, I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of PURE’s new converged radio – supporting FM, DAB and WiFi in one familiarly styled case. I’ve been lucky to know the guys at PURE since the early days of the original EVOKE-1, and as well as their remarkable marketing skills, they’ve got a great in-house technical team, headed up by Nick Jurascheck.

So this is my initial experience of using my EVOKE Flow, based on about the first hour of usage.

You can feel it’s a well built radio, and the piano black casing is very attractive (matches my new eee pc 901), and the power supply has shrunk right down. Plug in, switch on, and it’s ready to go.

The display is such an improvement (although not yet colour), and the initial user experience is dead simple. There’s a short “setup” guide in the box, which guides you through setting it up. Selecting “DAB Radio” did a band scan, which picked up all the stations I expected it to. Similarly, setting up the WiFi was simply a question of finding my WiFi network by name, and entering in the password. The unit obviously does a variety of “brute force” attacks to find out exactly which encryption is in use, and correctly worked out that I use WPA-PSK.

It’s quick. There’s no sluggish response to the UI, and the display and soft keys keep up with even the speediest actions. The station lists are quick to show, and the filtering (by location, genre, keywords, sound quality etc.) works exactly as it needs to when you’re handling thousands and thousands of WiFi stations.

It sounds good. That warm, rich sound is just as good as it’s even been, even on some of the ropier internet streaming.

The navigation is pretty good. The top level divides things into logical blocks (DAB, The Lounge, FM etc.) and there’s reasonable consistent use of a “back” or “cancel” function to get back where you were. The only area I stumbled around in a bit was when I was using filters to find stations, and adding them to favourites, although I suspect it’s just a case of getting use to it.

The radio is designed to be used in conjunction with PURE’s “The Lounge” website, which is a device portal. This isn’t yet live, so I couldn’t test out the interaction between the two, but I can see it’s probably easier to manage favourites from The Lounge.

Other nice features – there’s a comprehensive list of “On-Demand” and “Podcast” content, which appears to have scraped the BBC dry. PURE sounds gives you access to the kind of incidental and background audio that has made Birdsong a minor celebrity station.

Any bugs? Well, yes a few. Once of the immense challenges of doing a WiFi radio is trying to keep track of all the darned streams and what they are. I tried finding a particularly big, popular, public service pop station in Europe (not in the UK!), and found it was linked to another stream from the same PSB. So I went hunting for a way of manually entering a stream address, and there doesn’t appear to be one. Maybe I can add it through The Lounge?

Navigation of the WiFi content (even on a decent screen, with a fast UI) continues to be a real challenge because there’s just so much stuff. Again, I guess that’s what The Lounge is for.

The DAB and WiFi are two very distinct modules in the radio, which are kept separate from the main menu downwards. I couldn’t find a way, for instance, of having a common favourites list between DAB and WiFi. I have some DAB stations I want, and some stations I want to stream – I intensely dislike using my bandwidth to stream stuff I could be getting over the air. (And I get text information from DAB too, which is finally readable on this display).

The DAB is lacking an EPG, which would have been so much easier to navigate on this device. I know the support of it from broadcasters is currently weak, but it would make navigation and discovery better. Maybe that’s also something that could be integrated into The Lounge?

Overall, I like it. It looks nice, it works nice, and it’s a significant improvement in user experience over the Acoustic Energy unit that it’s taken over from in the kitchen. The SRP is £150, which seems to be in the right ball park for this kind of radio, and it does do nice things for you.

So I know what you’re thinking – a WiFi/DAB radio isn’t new.

Some of the most interesting stuff in the Flow is under the bonnet, and it’s why it’s an exciting development. PURE have talked about enabling music downloading and tagging, and the reason they can talk about those kind of developments confidently is that the Flow is built on Linux. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first large scale production DAB device that’s got Linux at the core (kernel 2.6 for the production model, if you’re interested).

This is a remarkable development. It means the radio can be upgraded to support new functionality, and that functionality can be programmed far more easily that the traditional micro-coding (which makes you go blind, sterile and your hair falls out) associated with embedded microprocessors. Nick and the PURE team have written drivers for the hardware, and used the power of Linux to build a radio that behaves really well. It’s now a connected computing device, optimised for audio and radio. Brilliant.

I’m looking forward to what the radio industry could do with connected, software based, devices like Flow, to speed up the delivery of innovation to consumers. All it needs now is a lovely QVA Colour Screen, it will be darned near perfect.

radio technology

Twitter and the realities of SMS

FailTheWhale by Twitter

So Twitter SMS updates are no more. I couldn’t have been less surprised by Biz Stone’s blog post, but it would have been nice for them to have ‘fessed up before they stopped sending the texts. Actually, I’m kind of relieved, as now I know that when the phone beeps, it’s actually a message for me, rather than amusing but ultimately random musings from people far from me.

I’m relieved for another reason too.

Twitter have justified ceasing their “European” service on the basis that they couldn’t reach an agreement with the network operator(s) to provide SMS on the same basis as the US and Indian operators. They haven’t said exactly what the basis is, but I’d bet good money that one of the models proposed was an “offsetting” model, where they only paid for the imbalance between messages received and messages sent. They probably figured if they could get the costs of managing the balance manageable, they could probably cover the remaining costs through advertising.

But I’m glad Twitter weren’t able to get that agreement. I, and many others, have been trying since 2001 to cut a deal that would recognise media operators (radio and TV) as promotional channels that would build SMS traffic, and that we should be given a deal that recognises that. But no deal. And to a large extent, history has proved that SMS has grown to immense proportions in Europe because of the difference in pricing between voice calls and SMS, and not down to a few radio and TV stations using it. It would have created a bunfight of unbelievable scale if Twitter had “done a deal” that wasn’t offered to the rest of us. European telecoms regulators have this very strong sense of “Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discrimanatory“, and I suspect they might have waded in with a view.

Us Europeans are obsessed with SMS, and it generates immense revenues for the networks. On a straight capacity basis, SMS is about the most expensive way to communicate with someone, but it’s created a premium  niche, occupying a unique space in terms of personal/pervasive/urgency (and of course, flirting). But that isn’t the case in other countries, and I can see that other network operators might like the idea that Twitter could create the “cool” that would see SMS reach the same epic proportions (and profits) as Europe.

I think Europe is going to evolve again, and that evolution will be catalysed by events like this. I’m still connected to Twitter because I have Fring on my mobile and a (virtually) unlimited data plan. Whilst it hammers the battery pretty hard, Fring is my IM client (on which I receive Twitter updates) and my VoIP client (on which I save lots of money, and have a single number that reaches me wherever I am). Coupled up with Opera, GMail and Google Maps apps, and I’m pretty much set for mobile. And that’s all on an elderly Nokia 6680. SMS is still darned handy, but the rest of my connectivity is moving to IP.

IM is the future of messaging, and I’m surprised that more radio stations aren’t offering IM gateways. After the enthusiasm with which we seized SMS early on, it’s time to jump a new breaking wave of talking to listeners, and particularly those younger listeners we find it difficult to communicate with. Interoperability is a big barrier (it’s hard to chat to someone not on the same system as you), and there isn’t the same commercial imperative to fix that (remember, SMS used to be “same network only” when it launched, but the lure of 10p per message soon fixed that problem).

So Twitter isn’t invincible, and isn’t above the rest of us. It’s just another media company, battling for attention, share of mind, and eventually, ad revenue.

dab digital radio technology

Freeview Receivers Fail – Digital Deja Vu

World's Stupidest Freeview TV #2

Freeview is getting a pasting in the press at the moment, because a small number of set-top boxes have died after a change to the multiplex configurations. It highlights a problem faced by all digital platform operators, and challenges the notion that market forces can regulate the quality of receiver products.

The four digital TV platforms in the UK all use variants of the DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) standard. Sky and Freesat use DVB-S* (Satellite), Virgin Media uses DVB-C (Cable) and Freeview uses DVB-T (Terrestrial). DVB-T is widely rolled out across Europe, and is the basis for Digital Television in many countries globally. DVB is to digital TV as GSM is to mobile telephony.

Both DVB and DAB are standardised in detailed standards documents published by ETSI, but like all standards, there are options and alternate configurations. All these possibilities are laid out in the standards, and both broadcasters and receiver manufacturers work from the same document to ensure that the end-to-end chain works.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

In practise, commercial pressures trump technical diligence more than manufacturers would like to admit. The standards are written in technical English, but it’s a major committment to read and really understand all the detail in the documents, and that takes time, and it’s expensive. Then the testing phase is complex, because there are so many permutations to work through to be sure that your receiver is going to work in all permissible conditions, or at least behave gracefully when it can’t support something.

Unfortunately, there is another way to develop a receiver. A scant skim-read of the spec, combined with periods of time with prototype receivers in hotel rooms, hacking away at code until the signal is correctly decoded. I know of a number of receivers that have been developed in this way – simply bashing away at code based on what’s being transmitted. As soon as the required signal comes out, the code is committed.

It’s faster and cheaper than doing it meticulously against the spec, and it allows a manufacturer to race a box out potentially earlier than rivals, and without having invested much time in tracking the development of the technology. The manufacturer just wants to shift the box, get the cash, and move the engineers onto the next consumer electronic device.

Interestingly, DAB suffered from exactly the same problem that Freeview has now, but about 9 years ago. A well-known (and at the time, best-selling) brand of DAB receiver appeared to be working perfectly until DigitalOne came on air. At the time, the BBC multiplex was broadcasting 8 services, but DigitalOne had 10. The additional number of services crashed the receiver, because the engineers at the time had assumed that 8 services would be the maximum on a multiplex. Thankfully, this was a reputable manufacturer who organised and paid for the recall and firmware upgrading of all receivers free of charge. Other receivers have been had similar limitations which have only become obvious when used in other countries, where the multiplexes are configured differently to the UK, but still entirely legitimately within the published specification.

Sky and Virgin avoid the problems that Freeview have had by supplying the receivers themselves, and testing every box themselves for compliance. It’s more costly for them, but dramatically reduces the customer-service problems that crap products create.

Because crap products tarnish the platform more than the manufacturer.

The headlines in the papers run along the lines of “FREEVIEW FIASCO“. That’s unfair. Why isn’t is saying “DAEWOO BOXES DIE” or “BUSH RECEIVERS BITE THE DUST“? Why does the Freeview platform bear the brunt of the criticism when they’re working within the spec? The Daewoo spokesman is quoted as saying “We certainly had no intention of selling boxes that would not work witin a few years”, which is hardly a robust defence. Why no unequovical statement of “Our receivers were developed according to the DVB-T specification, and tested accordingly”? What’s your view of the Daewoo, Bush, Labgear and Triax brands?

The argument from manufacturers about receiver compliance is “let the market decide”. In other words, those reputable brands who develop compliant receivers will benenfit, and people who put out rubbish will get crucified by the consumer and their brands will be trashed. Unfortunately, the Freeview problem is showing that consumers don’t react like that. They’ve already forked out their money, and their motivation was to receive the Freeview service, not necessarily to buy a cherished Daewoo product. It’s Freeview that they’re raging against.

DAB suffers from this problem. Consumers appear to assume that no matter how cheap and obviously nasty a DAB radio is, it should work perfectly, and maybe that’s a legitimate assumption. In the same way that a supermarket can’t sell you dangerously unfit food, surely they won’t sell you a digital radio that’s functionally useless. Unfortunately, it’s not the case, and there are DAB radios out there (cheap and nasty ones) which simply don’t meet the requirements of the spec, particularly in terms of sensitivity (the ability to pick up weaker signals).

Doing receiver compliance properly is a high-risk issue. Broadcasters and transmission providers are wary of running compliance programmes in case they get sued by a manufacturer if a receiver stops working. Manufacturers find it difficult to get hold of sufficient test signals to check all permutations (and that’s even the digilent ones). The risk falls disproportionately on the consumer.

The DVB / DAB logos are only supposed to be applied to receivers reaching the spec, but clearly not many people trust the manufacturers’ thoroughness in testing for these logos to carry much value any more. The logos just go on the box if it appears to work. Freeview and Freesat now run a testing programme on receivers, which grants a UK specific “tick” logo to boxes proved to be compliant. I would prefer to see a crack-down on receivers falsely applying the DVB/DAB logos, rather than developing a safety net branding. But to do so would need a significant investment in compliance testing and enforcement by DVB Form/WorldDMB, customs, importers and retailers. Is it worth it for a £15 receiver box?

Photo – my own, entitled “World’s Stupidest Freeview TV #2”.