We just completed another NAB Radio Show, and once again the nearly omnipresent thread was HD Radio. Despite the slow and steady process of the HD Radio evolution, which has included some bumps along the way, there have been some recent innovations pushing the progress forward.
This past spring, one step in making the transition more affordable was announced with the introduction of the imbedded Exporter. While this isn't really an advance in the technology, it makes these devices a more solid part of the signal chain. The first CD players and VCRs were big and bulky before being streamlined. The same is true now of the exporter, and this effort shows a real commitment to advancing this technology.
Another significant change for HD Radio was also unveiled last spring when the idea of increasing the level of the digital sidebands by up to 10dB was announced. This is a significant change in the system, and it has caused many stations to put their adoption plans on hold pending the outcome. This is understandable, since the choice of transmitter and transmission method is not made with 10dB of digital headroom.
The reason for the change in level is cited as a solution to improve building penetration and fringe coverage. Some sources have told me the increased level is a compromise for the HD Radio receiver chipset, which is just not sensitive enough for the -20dB level. Regardless of the reason, the question of digital carrier level has to be resolved soon.
We are finally seeing some real uses of data for HD Radio. Program-specific data is getting more sophisticated, and traffic data is a current hot button. In traffic, two groups, Clear Channel and the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium, have their own ideas of supplying traffic data. This is one area that will make HD Radio new and different instead of just being a replacement technology.
I see many references to programming offerings for multicast streams. I see these tied to HD Radio, but they are not technology advances. As stations plan to commence multicast operation, they obviously need something to feed these streams. Some of these offerings are deep niche programming (such as southern Asian or sports), while others find a specific target format we already know (deep tracks for example). They fill a need for sure, but they could fall into the same trap of just being another jukebox.
Adding conditional access to some of these formats is an innovation that could ensure the multicast formats are active listening choices and not just more background sound.
All these new listening choices have stirred interest in an electronic program guide (EPG). This is an innovation that I look forward to seeing implemented. Giving listeners an easy way to browse all available content provides a service, but it also puts all the programming on a level playing field. Listeners can more easily find programming, and stations will also have to put more effort into the programming. A never-ending title of “Hits of the 80s” won't keep the listener engaged when other choices are more savory. I see an EPG putting pressure back on stations to step out of the jukebox mentality.
The recent advance that I like the best is tagging. While the Apple Ipod implements it only for HD Radio, the newer app, the Microsoft Zune, has implemented it for RBDS. This sounds like a step backward, but if we can introduce listeners to a technology today, they will already be using it when it's added to HD Radio.
So while it seems like HD Radio is going nowhere, it's obvious this is not the case.
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