dab digital radio mobile radio


mac stillness by shapeshifter @ (cc licenced)

Emily Bell wrote an Opinion article on MediaGuardian yesterday about the implications of a successful takeover of GCap Media by Global Radio.

In it, she notes:

“Many think that Hazlitt had a point about developing DAB. If the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web, then investing in an alternative infrastructure does seem slightly risky.”

So what does it mean to say “the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web“? What is “the web“?

In my mind, “the web” is a convenient catch-all to describe “stuff you access through a web browser”, and most people think of that being on a PC. Some people are getting used to the idea of surfing the web on something other than a PC, and the iPhone / iPod Touch have moved the concept of handheld browsing into the mainstream.

But how does “the web” get to you?

Moving “the web” around requires infrastructure. The majority of “the web” moves around on cables; cables between ISPs, cables under the sea, cables to your house.

Some of “the web” moves around without cables.

There are technologies like WiFi and GPRS+EDGE and 3G and HSPDA and WiMax.

All of these technologies require substantial infrastructure investment, have significant weaknesses and most are very expensive. Somebody has to lay cables, build towers, buy spectrum.

DAB has an image problem.

People think “DAB = Radio”, which is reasonable considering it’s been promoted as a “radio” system, championed by “radio companies” and all it’s ever done is transmit radio.

DAB = mobile broadband.

Each “multiplex” is equivalent to a 1.152MBit/s broadband connection.  Admittedly it’s a one way connection, but then so is HSPDA on 3G (and that’s a dirty secret that networks don’t like to shout  about). And DAB doesn’t use IP, but using IP would simply make it less efficient by introducing irrelevant routing information.

The UK Radio industry has flooded most UK cities with about 5MBit/s of completely free, mobile, broadband.

The investment in infrastructure to make that happen has been big for the radio industry (bigger than it appears it ought to have been), but tiny compared to other technology platforms. Miniscule. That’s why it’s the only mobile broadband platform you can access completely free and on devices costing less than £15 to buy outright.

The problem is that “the radio industry” struggles to understand how to monetise content other than radio on this valuable platform. But “new media” people who do some research understand the strengths and the weaknesses of DAB. A particular strength is that’s surprisingly economic and universal, and the weakness of being a unidirectional technology can be circumvented by combining with other technologies, like 3G or WiFi or something better at bi-directional traffic.

So investing in DAB isn’t “investing in an alternative infrastructure” at all. Investing in DAB is investing in “additional infrastructure” for distributing “the web”, and it’s particularly good at delivering the demanding application of streaming radio which people expect to access universally, on the move, for free. (WiFi and 3G simply can’t provide the Quality of Service to deliver uninterrupted mobile audio streaming).

But you can also use DAB to distribute web-sites, podcasts, video clips, traffic and travel data, public transport information, weather forecasts, local event data – anything you can access on “the web” can also be distributed simultaneously to millions of people via DAB.

We should start saying “DAB = WEB“.

(Bootnote – as I gave this blog its title, I remembered that “DABWEB” was the name of the very first webhost for Core, Planet Rock, The Storm and The Mix, wayyy back in 1999).