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Korean Air Crashes and French Digital Radio

대한민국 터치다운 - McCarran Intl Airport, NV USA (CC) gTarded at Flickr

대한민국 터치다운 - McCarran Int'l Airport, NV USA (CC) gTarded at Flickr

I’m enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers. In the same vein as Freakonomics, it looks deeper into why certain people or events deviate from the norm, become exceptional – why they are “outliers”. It’s helped create a new view on something that has puzzled and frustrated the world of Digital Radio, and handily includes references to Aviation and Korea, which is where we start.

One of the chapters in the book is called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes“, and describes the infamous crash of Korean Airlines flight KE801 into Guam in August 1997. (There’s an episode of Air Crash Investigation that covered it – Part I, II, III, IV, V). To summarise, the pilot flew his 747 plane into the ground, despite the instrumentation and the crew being well aware of what was going to happen in good time to be able to avoid the accident. 228 of the 254 passengers died.

It happened at a time when Korean Airlines was putting planes into the ground with worrying frequency. In the book, Gladwell says Korean Airlines was crashing planes 17 times more frequently than United Airlines. This wasn’t due to badly maintained aircraft, or dangerous conditions – the crews just kept crashing their planes. (I don’t know if “17 times” is accurate, but I do know that it’s a well established rule in flying circles never to fly KE metal, and one I have myself stuck to rigidly, preferring to route LHR-FRA-ICN on my trips to Korea).

The obvious conclusion is that Korean Airlines crews were incompetent, but Gladwell suggests it wasn’t incompetence – it was deference. The Korean culture is so deferential to figures of authority or power, the  members of the crew who could see danger increasing simply did not feel that they could bring it to the captain’s attention. It was socially unacceptable for them to question his judgment, or even infer that he wasn’t fully aware and in control of his aircraft. Looking at the transcripts from the flight recorder, it’s excrutiating listening to the First Officer hint and suggest to the Captain that they might actually be flying straight into the ground. Only when there’s less than 7 seconds to impact does the First Officer clearly call for a “Go Around”. Too late.

This degree of deference can be measured – the PDI (Power Distance Index) measures the degree to which people are deferential to figures of authority or power. The PDIs of many nations (cultures) have been measured, and there is a remarkable correlation between  the amount of deference in a in culture, and the plane crashes in those countries. It seems to be that such a degree of deference negates the value of having subordinates to help provide vital input and monitor situations.

So where’s the connection with Digital Radio?

It turns out that there’s another nation with a high PDI. France. France has a  PDI value of 68 – it’s a highly deferential nation. (In context, Britain and Germany have values of 35, and Austria just 11).

All of a sudden, things are clicking for  me. Here’s why.

France chose a non-standard version of DAB – a cut-down version of mobile TV (basically, mobile TV minus the video, or with very little video). Something that the Koreans (them again) invented and dubbed T-DMB. The most prominent figure in that decision for France to the use Korean originated T-DMB system was a man called Sylvain Anichini.

M. Anichini was the Director of Technology for Radio France – in hierarchical terms, he was pretty much at the top of the roost in French Radio. For whatever reasons he had, he became a passionate and vehement supporter of T-DMB. And he would give not a moment to anyone who didn’t agree with his decision. It’s maybe understandable that he repelled approaches from the other DAB nations, on the basis that his “sovereignty” might be undermined. I believe he stormed out of more than one WorldDMB meeting, and was very insulting in public session to a number of fellow professionals. It might also be the case that M. Anichini found dealing with Koreans, and their deferential culture, much more appealing than dealing with those apparently insolent and disrespectful English and Germans.

What’s interesting is the number of people within the French radio industry who privately disagreed with both M. Anichini’s decision, and his behaviour. I’m aware, both directly and indirectly, of heavy sighs when discussing the path being followed, but I (and others) could never understand why those people who were uncomfortable with the direction taken would never raise the issue more openly. I was obviously failing to understand the immense gulf between our culture and the French culture, and what appears to be a overriding and almost smothering cultural barrier to challenge bad decisions made by a person above you. (Maybe this is also why the French are so apparently tolerant of the dalliances of its politicians?).

What was happening in France with DAB had parallels with what happened to flight KE801. One man, whether intentionally or just out of disorientation, was about to bring everything crashing into the ground, and his subordinates and colleagues could not do anything to stop it.

Of course, with Digital Radio, nobody got hurt (apart from a bit of pride) and nobody died. Compromises were made, and positions adopted that allowed the French decision to accommodated, albeit at a financial cost for the entire DAB community worldwide. M. Anichini left Radio France at some point after the decision was taken, but before licences were awarded by the CSA.

So what did Korean Airlines do to turn around their appalling safety record? They hired an American and enforced the use of English in the cockpit, as a way of breaking down the deferential barriers created by the Korean language. It seems unlikely that the same approach would be appropriate for Digital Radio in France.

Unbiased advice on DMB, DAB and DAB+?

Confusion by LuluP @ Flickr

It’s really great to meet radio people from around the world, and talk with them about their own plans for digital radio. But I’m often surprised about how much confusion surrounds DAB, particularly the (mis)information about DMB.

It’s important that radio people inform themselves properly and independently about the technology choices they are making. This isn’t as easy as it seems.

Follow the money

What isn’t widely understood is how money flows around the business of consumer electronics these days. You might think that a manufacturer makes money through retail margins – selling radios at a price higher than it cost to produce them. That’s certainly true, but the economics of the last decade or so have eroded retail margins to be incredibly slim. You don’t make much money simply by selling radios.

One of the issues that is new to radio people is IPR – Intellectual Property Rights. IPR represents some “cleverness” that a company (or group of companies) has thought up to make technology work better/cheaper or both. Legally, they “own” that idea or process, and they can choose to licence it to third parties. A modern consumer electronics device (like an MP3 player) may have IPR from twenty or thirty companies in it, and everyone of those companies is entitled to a licence fee. There has recently been a case where consignments of MP3 player have been seized because the manufacturers have not been paying the IPR for using the MP3 technology.

Here’s a specific example: To enable DAB+ or DMB requires an audio encoding technology called HE AAC, combined with a technology called SBR (Spectral Band Replication). These two technologies cost €1.60 and €0.15-€0.20 to licence per receiver respectively. So every DAB+ or DMB enabled receiver generates €1.80 to those companies who own the IPR rights. Multiply that across every radio sold in the world, and that’s a substantial amount of revenue. Put it another way, if you sell a DAB+ radio for €20, as a manufacturer you might get €0.50 from the retail margin, but as an IPR licensee you might make €1. Making radios is not as profitable as making the technology to go into radios.

But here’s an interesting thing. A DMB device also needs another technology called MPEG II Transport Stream. That adds another $0.50 per device. So a DMB device automatically has a higher cost, even if it only ever decodes audio. And there’s another $0.50 per device flowing to an IPR holder (or group) somewhere.

So who owns this IPR?

It’s not always clear who benefits from these extra licensing fees. But it does stand to reason that the companies who have IPR rights in a particular technology will be those companies most enthusiastic about promoting it and getting it widely adopted. And boy, there’s no wider adoption than radios. (100m radios in the UK alone – only 70m mobile phones). It’s a vast vast opportunity. If you’re an IPR holder, even if it’s only a total of €0.10 per device, you could be looking at millions and millions of Euro in licence revenues for decades to come – just by persuading someone to use your technology.

So now it makes sense why a technology company might fly people around the world, and make expensive “prototype” devices to encourage uptake of that technology in which they might have IPR rights -both declared and potentially hidden too. A few hundred thousand Euro in airfares, flights and prototypes might net millions of Euro return.

(It would be like the petro-rich countries encouraging the development and universal adoption of the internal combustion engine. Whatever the development and marketing costs were, they would quickly be dwarfed by the petro-dollars rolling in for decades and decades).

Take your technology advice carefully

Here’s a harsh statement – don’t trust technology suppliers to give you impartial advice. They might benefit substantially from your decision. They are selling you a solution, and your consumers will be paying for it with every device they buy, for ever.

So now you have an insight to the motivation of technology suppliers, who can give you impartial advice?

Well, the answer is that few people can give you genuinely impartial advice. But I would suggest that other broadcasters probably have objectives more similarly aligned to your own, and rarely have an IPR interest, so their advice might be far less prone to distortion. But of course, they don’t make any money from their advice, so sometimes it’s hard to justify spending a few hundred Euro one a flight and a hotel to discuss these things.

I’m disappointed that our colleagues in France have an expectation of Digital Radio that’s virtually identical to ours, but have been sold a completely different set of technologies to delivery it – technologies that will add about €0.75 in IPR to every single digital radio sold around the world. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.

DAB, DAB+ and DMB

Sometimes it appears that technology suppliers would prefer the simplicity of DAB to be obscured from broadcasters. It obviously helps them sell a solution if the solution looks hard.

DAB isn’t complicated, but you do have to know your options.

Everything in DAB starts with the multiplex, and the multiplex can support a mix of technologies all co-existing in the same set of spectrum and on the same infrastructure. The most prominent DAB applications are:

  • DAB – confusingly, the same name as the multiplex. DAB refers to the original method of broadcasting radio using the MPEG Layer II audio encoder, and this is now largely superseded by DAB+. You can add visuals to DAB using Slideshow at frame rates of up to 1fps.
  • DAB+ – the way to transmit Digital Radio. DAB+ is a direct upgrade of DAB. The great thing about DAB+ is it supports exactly the same data services as DAB, so there is a clear migration path for countries using DAB now (like the UK) into DAB+ without starting from scratch again.
  • DMB – the way to transmit mobile TV. DMB is substantially more complicated and expensive to transmit, and on the receiver, than DAB or DAB+. Unless you absolutely need to transmit TV (moving pictures with synchronous audio), you should not be considering DMB at all. The extra IPR load on the receiver of DMB is nasty, and makes the idea of a €50 radio with a colour screen virtually impossible.

I don’t think I can make it clearer than that. Don’t use DMB for radio, as it’s unnecessarily complex and expensive for radio, even radio with visuals. Use DAB+, as it was beautifully developed (largely by broadcasters with no IPR interests) to work brilliantly for radio. DMB was knocked up in a hurry to support mobile TV – it works, but it’s not elegant. But you can mix them all together in the same DAB multiplex just fine.

Radio companies of the world need to stick together

Together there is enough knowledge and understanding of the technology within broadcasters not to have to rely solely on technology suppliers for advice. The problem is that we appear to be really lousy at talking to each other about it. The WorldDMB Technical Committee helps a bit, but often decisions are being taken at higher levels than that, and there simply aren’t enough commercial radio broadcasters participating in WorldDMB.

That needs fixing before we fall into another IPR trap that will cost us all money.

Free TV on mobiles – Free Radio too?

Samsung DMB Phone

Vodafone Germany appear to have thrown in the towel in the great battle to get mobile users to pay for mobile TV :

They’ve decided that a better plan is to enable reception of the existing Free-To-Air DVB-T service, and bolster their revenues from selling digital content linked to and around FTA TV. This sounds like a smart move to me, as someone else is paying for the network. Clearly it’s more “not good news” for the dedicated mobile technologies of DVB-H and DMB.

So, Vodafone Germany enables Free To Air TV reception via DVB-T, and at the same time Vodafone UK enables Free To Air Digital Radio reception via DAB by signing a network exclusive deal for the Samsung Steel.

(I’m tapping all the contacts I have to get the full info on the extent of DAB support in the Steel – does it do DLS Text, Slideshow, EPG?)

Maybe Vodafone Group is more joined up across Europe than we give them credit for?