The transition to digital radio has been slow, but no one should have any doubt about its inevitability. One of the greatest challenges in ushering digital radio into the market, aside from differing standards (in Europe) and analog radio shut off issues, is the user interface. Digital radio opens up a new world of location-relevant information including both data and content all of which means opportunity for system designers to compete and differentiate.
Digital radio is forcing designers to change the way they think about broadcast content and how consumers will access and “discover” new sources and types of content – from traffic and weather information to podcasts and enhancements such as slideshow functionality and conditional access. While the fundamentals of frequencies (in the U.S.) and station names (Europe) remain unchanged, the ability to search for specific content or location information is transforming the radio experience.
Digital radio is ideally suited to the emerging cloud-based content and service delivery world confronting the automotive industry. This convergence of radio and the cloud is manifested most obviously in so-called hybrid radio (promoted by RadioDNS www.radiodns.org) which brings together broadcast signals with online content enhancements such as album art.
Of course, hybrid radio is still just an idea today, although broadcasters and content providers are building the necessary databases to support the technology. (Strategy Analytics data shows FM radio technology forecasted to be available on 60% of handsets sold in the U.S. by 2014.) Meanwhile, electronic programming guides – such as RadioTime – have already made search and location relevance a reality.
The unspoken facilitating technology is the smartphone. The growing popularity of smartphones and the corresponding rise of automotive smartphone connectivity and application stores have facilitated the introduction of Internet radio and music services into cars. The integration of this access with on-board systems will add yet another layer of added value for the consumer.
Even more significant is the emergence of interactivity and conditional access to radio content. The proliferation of music services is turning music consumption into a thumbs-up/thumbs-down proposition allowing consumers to customize their experience..Among the music services enabling this customized experience are Pandora (streaming), Slacker (cached), Mog, Rhapsody and Thumbplay.
But unlike digital radio, none of these services are completely free for a commercial-free experience. Digital radio stands alone as a ubiquitous, free-over-the-air offering increasingly built into OEM and aftermarket solutions. Of greatest importance, from a user interface perspective, is the fact that the OEM can control, leverage or drive the digital radio experience, unlike Internet radio, which is connectivity based.
The march toward digital radio was manifest at last week’s WorldDMB conference in the form of software defined radios capable of supporting DAB, DAB+, DMB and HD Radio systems. Companies showing such solutions included ST Microelectronics, Maxim and EtherWaves. Frontier Silicon laid claim to market leadership in digital radio implementations in its comments at the event.
Frontier made a distinction between higher cost software defined radio solutions that provide for flexibility and upgradability and hardware radios that are lower cost and less flexible, while offering a third path of hybrid radio (not to be confused with the RadioDNS technology) offering an optimal mix of lower cost and flexibility. Panasonic Electronic Devices also showed multiple-format modules at the conference.
The overall tenor of the WorldDMB gathering was oriented toward overcoming transition issues for the implementation of digital radio throughout Europe. Of course, the industry can only progress as quickly as the systems can reach the market. Hardware and software companies are still scrambling to bring all of the capabilities of digital radio into being.
This is most clear from the progress of iBiquity Digital in the U.S., key sponsor of HD Radio technology. This week the company reported that 18% of aftermarket systems sold in the U.S. this year came with HD Radio. The company also reports steady progress in recruiting OEMs to implement HD Radio, which is increasingly standard.
But none of the implementations currently on the market are able to take advantage of the complete range of available digital radio applications. So, the content is available in the form of hundreds of broadcasters and the receivers are in place in line-fit and aftermarket solutions, but complete technology deployment is still in progress at the silicon level.
Nevertheless, governmental authorities are aggressively pursuing awareness campaigns and contests intended to drive digital radio adoption. The numbers are still modest, typically in the hundreds of thousands of units, but at least these representatives recognize that digital radio will require active efforts to stimulate consumer interest.
At the same time, new capabilities will mean new business models and new user interfaces. One of the essential reasons for the introduction of digital radio is to open up congested airwaves to more broadcasters and more broadcast content. This will stimulate additional advertising and revenue opportunities and confusion. But these are early days for digital radio.
The inevitability of digital radio was clear at the WorldDMB conference where country rollout status reports were shared including some hard digital switchover dates, such as the U.K.’s 2015 deadline. (France was notable by its absence at the event - due to logistical issues. But France’s mandate for DMB leaves no room for doubt regarding its transition to digital radio.)
Whether or not digital radio replaces analog radio over the long run, the automotive industry is in the forefront of the movement and stands to reap the greatest rewards. It remains to be seen which OEMs or suppliers will lead the way but the race is on to deliver a new level of value to consumers.
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