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We’re not done talking about platforms for radio

WiMax - is it really the platform for radio?

WiMax - is it really the platform for radio?

Two unconnected but yet intertwined events have catalysed this posting. One was James Cridland writing, in The Future Of Radio – The Best Thing that:

The best thing that could happen to radio is that we stop talking about platforms, and start talking about content. Nobody, but nobody, cares about how they get content. Podcasts, online, downloads, on-demand, live, streaming, FM – they’re all just ways for our audience to get great content.

The second was the decision by German’s public service financing committee, the KEF (Die Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs der Rundfunkanstalten), not to authorise increased expenditure by the public service broadcasters (the ARD) on DAB – the so-called “Re-launch” of DAB in Germany. They listed a number of factors in their decision, one of which was the failure of the largest commercial radio association, the VPRT (Verband der Privater Rundfunk und Telemedien – Association of Commercial Radio and Television) to embrace the relaunch plans. The KEF commented that it might be worth reassessing the technical options available for delivering digital radio, again.

So, I’m afraid that whilst I agree with James that content is fundamental, the platform question for radio remains very much open in some key countries. In the UK, we’re lucky enough that Digital Britain has coalesced aspirations into a concrete plan for the digitalisation of radio, despite the complaints of some people. (I wonder if there were people in pre-historic times who complained about “the wrong kind of fire”, and spent millennia grumbling that wheels weren’t sufficiently round enough). In Australia and France and Denmark, they’re getting on with the business of digitising radio with the best platform(s) to hand.

Why can’t we close this platform question down?

There is not, and never will be, a perfect answer to the question of which platform or platforms are ideal for radio. Radio varies from country to country and continent to continent, and even a century after its invention, the maturity of radio markets around the world varies enormously. It wasn’t a huge surprise to me to see the VPRT come out against change – market leading incumbents rarely want to do anything that disturbs foreseeable profits. In my opinion their projections of digital radio growth were unnecessarily pessimistic and didn’t take into account real-life experiences in the UK and Denmark. Commercial Radio in Germany is far less consolidated than in the UK or France, meaning that there are a great deal of stakeholders to influence and educate. In the absence of education, it’s hard for people to make an informed decision based on inputs from a number of sources.

It’s also the case that technology never provides answers, just more questions. As I’ve said before, it’s wrong to ask a clever technologist for a definite answer, because technology is so theoretically adaptable, there’s never a definitive answer. I’ve no doubt that the technical advisor to the KEF (just the one technical advisor, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Reimers, who is also Chair of the DVB Technical Module, and has been involved with the development of DVB-T2) can provide many technologies that theoretically solve the problem of “digitising radio”.

So it relies on broadcasters to seek input from technologists, amongst others, to decide what platform or platforms are right for their future, and then do something daring and step forward knowing that they might be wrong. (Although, if enough people do the wrong thing together, it rarely ends up being wrong, and often becomes an expenses policy – that’s a joke for the Brits).

How do you minimise the risks of being wrong?

I recommend doing some simple checks of technology solutions against a broader picture than just technology. Only once you move out of theory and into reality do you start to get some perspective of what could happen versus what’s likely to happen.

So here’s my short list of criteria:

  1. What’s the economic viablity for radio? How do the real costs compare against existing FM/AM transmission costs, for individual operators and for the whole industry? Can it scale to current consumption levels in a cost-effective way, or is it only designed to take a proportion of current listening? (Notice I say real costs, not necessarily the costs promoted by infrastructure providers. Do your own homework on how much equipment and infrastructure access costs; don’t rely on people trying to sell you something).
  2. How mobile and ubiquitous is it? Will it go everywhere that FM can go now? Can it go in cars, in your hand, in the kitchen, bathroom, office? Is it realistic to have battery powered receivers?
  3. How future proof  is it? Is it flexible enough to adapt to unknown digital  requirements in the future? (This is where I believe HD Radio has a real weakness. HD is “digitalisation lite”, and I believe the HD operators will want more bandwidth to deliver more compelling applications). How many other people are developing on the same platform for radio?
  4. How viable is it for consumers? When will they be able to buy receivers be made at all prices levels and complexities, starting at €10 for a simple “transistor” radio? What’s the potential market size, globally? Will consumer electronic manufacturers see a coherent, unified set of service providers, asking for broadly similar requirements?

Terrestrial internet works for some of these points, but fails on ubiquity and mobility. Mobile internet (3G, WiMax, whatever) ticks some of these boxes more convincingly than others, but seems to fail on the objective of a universally available low-cost entry receiver. The Internet will be part of radio’s distribution, but not the whole. None of these criteria has a yes/no answer, and each response will vary from territory and technology.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if these criteria are relevant, and to test your favourite digital radio technology against them. I’d be interested to see what you think in the comments.

In the meantime, the platform question remains seemingly not just open, but open-ended, at least in the minds of the radio companies who need to make decisions on their futures.

Inevitable reiteration of the usual disclaimer – these are my personal views, and not those of my employer.

Googling the future of Digital Radio

A number of articles and blogs have drawn attention to the ability of Google searches to provide early indications of change. Google announced that they were providing information on people searching for infomation about ‘flu to map outbreaks, and this week there was an article in The Economist about how eerily accurately the decline in people searching about Ford cars was reflected in actual sales decline.

So what does Google’s clairvoyance tell us about DAB Digital Radio?

Let’s kick off with the basic trend of “dab radio” anywhere the world.

Google Trends for DAB Radio Worldwide (Click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio Worldwide (Click to enlarge)

As a piece of calibration, this seems about right. Not surprisingly, the two countries that have really “got” DAB, the UK and Denmark, are pulling all the hits. And there’s a surge interest around Christmas which absolutely matches what happens to sales. (And Bristol is high source of traffic – can’t imagine why (OK – probably because Virgin Media have a connection to the Internet here…)).

The trend is pretty static, globally – but you can see the growing noise in the press about DAB, which continues fairly unabaited. (No, I can’t explain why Danish is inexplicably the top ranked language. Maybe the pro-rata’ed access to Danish language articles is much higher than to English language articles?).

So, let’s narrow it down to the UK.

Google Trends for DAB Radio in the UK (click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio in the UK (click to enlarge)

Restricting the analysis to just the UK really don’t change thing very much at all, which probably gives us an insight into how much the volume of queries worldwide is driven by and influence by the UK. I think this means we probably drive virtually all the Google queries for DAB Radio. (More on that in second).  If I remember correctly, 2004 was the first Christmas that the BBC really pushed DAB, probably because they actually had some new radio stations to talk about. My intepretation of the declining peaks at each Christmas is that people need to know less about DAB and need to less searching to find out who sells it. And there is a drift downward in the number volume of queries. Does that mean that people want to know less about it, because they already know enough? Is that too optimistic?

But we know the UK is DAB-happy. What about the other big European country which was apparently so enthusiastic about implementing DAB. How does it look in Germany?

Google Trends for DAB Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

This looks rather weird. It suggests, from the shape of the graph, that overall query volumes are tiny. I compared the width of the “Country” bar graph (in the Worldwide chart) for the UK (98 pixels) with that for Germany (6 pixels). I know that’s horribly inaccurate, but it indicates that there’s probably about 15-20 times more queries for DAB coming from the UK than Germany. That Bayern comes top of the list doesn’t surprise – but it’s hard to tell if it’s because it’s the Land that is most active in DAB, or just the largest  of the Länder.

As the media seems to be keen to promote Internet versus DAB as the battle of all time, let’s have a look at the relative performance of those terms in Google Trends. Firstly, across the world.

Google Trends of DAB Radio and Internet Radio, Worldwide

Google Trends of DAB Radio and Internet Radio, Worldwide

Not entirely surprisingly, globally Internet Radio is searched for a fair bit more than DAB Radio. The average ratio is 10.8 : 1, but that seems to suggest that DAB is actually out performing Internet Radio in terms of interest and search terms. Let’s assume that most of the DAB searches are coming from UK, Denmark and Germany with  a combined pop’n of 147m, against a global population of 6.77bn. That’s a much higher proportion of searching for DAB Radio than Internet Radio. (Although people might also be searching for other terms).

The decline in the search volumes for Internet Radio is confusing, given that it’s apparently in its ascendancy. It’s much more apparent than the slight decline in DAB searching we saw in the UK. The only explanation I can suggest is that as Google gets used more by “normal” people, they are slightly less inclined to search out Internet Radio than the more geeky early adopters? Or has everyone got an Internet Radio now?

You can see from the bottom of this graph the country-by-country breakdown, indexed against DAB. (If you index it against Internet Radio, the country lineup becomes Mexico (!), Germany, Netherlands, Brazil, Peru, United States, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, Austria). Germany is interesting – more of that in a second. And you can see that in the UK, Internet Radio and DAB radio are about the same.

So let’s look at the UK in detail – DAB Radio versus Internet Radio.

Google Trends for DAB Radio & Internet Radio in the UK

Google Trends for DAB Radio & Internet Radio in the UK (click to enlarge)

In the UK, the two search times are neck and neck, with DAB just edging out Internet Radio on the basis of the seasonal interest around Christmas. It’s very interesting that the media perception is that DAB is in a ditch and Internet Radio is it – but that’s not what Google’s users are telling us. Notably, the amount of coverage of Internet Radio (the lower graph) is much much higher than DAB Radio, but it just doesn’t seem to be reflecting or driving interest. That does kind of figure – lots of Media noise about Internet Radio, but real people are looking at both.

Finally, a quick trip back to Germany to see how Internet Radio is doing there…

Google Trends for DAB Radio and Internet Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio and Internet Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

No DAB huh? I guess people will look for their radio choice va the Internet then. But still that dramatic decline in relative search volumes for Internet Radio recently. I’ll be intruiged to see what this graph looks like once the Germans have started promoting DAB+ to their population.

So, what can we conclude fro this graph-fest?

  • In the countries that have promoted DAB, it seems to be in rude health, and with no significant decline in interest, despite generally negative media coverage in the last year or so.
  • Internet Radio doesn’t seem to be growing interest relative to the growing amount of (largely positive) media coverage of it.
  • Relative interest in both DAB and Internet radio is declining as more “normal” people start using Google to look for stuff that interests them. But interest in Internet Radio is declining faster than interest in DAB Radio.
  • In Germany, people are interested in Internet Radio (presumably to seek out choice) and would probably just as interested in DAB Radio if it were promoted with confidence.

I’m going to keep an eye on “The Trends” and will maybe update in 6-12 months time. (I’ll also hopefully have some first data for Australia, in which DAB search terms rate 0 across the board).

P.S. Just to reassure you that the terms DAB Radio and Internet Radio are what German speakers would search for (well, as much as any British person) I speak enough German and know enough German speakers to be reasonably confident that the results aren’t skewed by the language difference.

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?

Too much technology

YouFM by NickPiggott@flickr

This week I was lucky enough to meet up with my colleagues and peers in the German commercial radio industry, and spend a day at a seminar organised by VPRT in Berlin. It gave me an insight into their world, and their situation, which I’ve been lacking for a long time. It also made me realise that they’re being let down by some technologists.

DAB Digital Radio has been dominated by public service broadcasters, and the membership of WorldDMB is testament to that fact. Of the hundreds of members of WorldDMB, only 3 commercial radio companies are represented; GCap Media (UK), Channel 4 Radio (UK) and Commercial Radio Australia. The UK’s approach of co-operation between the public and commercial sectors has been an exceptional undertaking. Only recently have commercial broadcasters begun to engage with DAB, visibly in Switzerland, France, Australia, Germany, and the mood is changing elsewhere.

What I’ve learnt in my two days with my German colleagues is that they’re asking very good questions, and indeed probably more informed and relevant questions than we did when we kicked off DAB in the mid-90’s. There are lots of questions that need answers, and when those answers have been gathered and assessed, then there will be a decision on a commitment to Digital Radio.

Not unsurprisingly, quite a lot of their questions are about making the right technology choices, and this is where I believe they’re being let down by some technologists.

Technologists love to create technology. There is always a better solution to a problem, a better framework to work within, a new concept, a new library. COMET, XMPP, Ruby on Rails, Java – technologists thrive and survive on new ideas and new, cleverer, solutions to problems. German technologists are no exception, and their innovations have been exceptional – DAB, MP3, RDS – all have significant input from German technologists, and my personal experience is that they have some incredibly agile and intelligent technologists. I would trust my life with some of the guys at Fraunhofer.

But sometimes technologists’ ability to create endless solutions means uncertainty and instability. And sometimes technologists create problems in order to create solutions to justify their existence.

One of the difficulties I see my German colleagues grappling with is whether they are using the right technology for Digital Radio. Should it be DAB? Or DAB+? Or “DMB Audio”? Or DAB-IPDC? Or DXB? Or IBOC? Or…..? Nobody wants to make the wrong decision, and buy into an out of date technology. And whenever it looks like the number of choices is narrowing, a technologist pops up and throws another suggestion in the ring. And, of course, they all claim to offer the ultimate, most future proof, elegant, scalable and cheapest solution.

Of course, I can help a bit. Don’t use DAB. It’s out of date. But if the UK had hung on in 1998 waiting for a “better” technology, we’d never have got on-air, never sold 7m+ receivers, and never made a success of DAB. And at least we have a relatively obvious migration path to DAB+.

Indeed, it analogous with buying a computer. Just accept that whatever you buy will be superceded in 6 months (or indeed, may already be superceded). If you keep waiting, you’ll never buy a computer and you’ll still be scratching on stone tablets when everyone else is sending e-mail and chatting on Facebook.

It’s a shame that some technologists can’t be a bit more market aware, and look beyond their ability to cook up new ideas and bring a bit more balanced assessment. It’s not providing a solution to keep creating new solutions. Answer more questions, provide more data. Which solution is most elegant? Most spectrum efficient? Most backwards compatible? Most closely matches the requirements list? (Is the requirements list reasonable?). How much will devices cost? Who will be building them? When will they be available? And of course, who else is using this technology set?

I hope the technology issue in Germany can be closed down fairly soon. They’re definitely suffering from too much technology, and it’s not helping. If they can slim down the candidates against a list of reasonable requirements, say “no” to people trying to bounce new/unproven solutions onto them, and make a technology choice, it will tick another box on the check-list marked “Things To Do To Launch Digital Radio”.

I also caught up with Sebastian Kett and Michael Reichert from SWR, home of the rather marvellous DasDing. A blog on what they’re up to will follow….

A German Melodrama (Part I)

Brandenburg Gate by Wit @ flickr

There’s a large amount of noise and conflicting information emanating from Germany at the moment in the wake of an announcement by KEF, the federal body that administers the public service licencing funding in Germany.

The headline information is that the KEF have made some dramatic (indeed, melodramatic) announcements about DAB Digital Radio, some of which seem to be some distance from the reality the rest of the world is experiencing, and possibly partisan.

Rather than comment further here, I’ll just note that the outcome is far from definite, and I am informed that the various Ländesmedien are preparing to comment over the next couple of days. Once their side of the story has been stated, I’ll see if that stabilises the picture enough to say something meaningful about it.

Added to that, the right kind of restructuring and refocusing of effort around DAB in Germany might not be an altogether bad thing. It would appear that the German public service broadcasters have been generously funded to promote DAB, and the outcome has been somewhat underwhelming. In the UK we seem to have achieved a great deal more with the essential additions of wit and passion.