One of the more interesting items to come our way in a while concerns the launch of field trials for what's being billed as an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) "ecosystem" in eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Supported as part of the NAB's Fastroad initiative, the trails represent an impressive collaboration between a number of broadcast and online media stakeholders.
EPG development is not a new field. Initial development of electronic program guide technology was undertaken in Europe during early development of Eureka 147 DAB. Since then, the scope of such applications has grown to include terrestrial radio and even online audio services. In a world where consumers can potentially access a galaxy of real time audio programming, the ability to access a program guide that allows them to selectively sift through that content has become something akin to a Holy Grail.
Jointly managed by BIA Advisory Services and Broadcast Signal Lab with collaboration from Ibiquity Digital , the current exercise involves the use of bureau and client software developed by project contractor Unique Interactive, a firm with previous experience in DAB EPG development. HD Radio stations owned by Greater Media, Clear Channel, CBS, Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts round out the trial consortium, with more stations expected to join the effort as work progresses.
The goal is to develop a functional program navigation system for HD Radio broadcasters that leverages HD Radio's existent EPG delivery architecture to provide what Broadcast Signal Lab's David Maxson describes as "program transparency" for consumers with EPG capable radios. In other words, EPG promises the consumer the ability to navigate both primary and multicast radio services available to a given receiver, providing text descriptions of all upcoming content on a dynamic basis. In essence, the EPG provides the basic functionality of a cable TV program guide, but with the potential for a far richer and more dynamic feature set.
But the complexity of providing such a service for terrestrial HD Radio is bedeviling. Unlike cable TV, there is no content aggregator for radio, and as a mobile medium that relies on geographically constrained signal footprints, the channels available to a mobile receiver at any given time are constantly in flux. In order to address this issue a receiver needs to "know" what channels it's receiving. The very flexibility presented by an IBOC approach to digital radio, as opposed to satellite or DAB (where all the sources on a multiplex signal are known) makes the prospect of EPG especially challenging.
There's also the fundamental question of how data on what's available in a given market is parsed and delivered. From a consumer's perspective, it might be best to be able to browse all channels available. But how will that data be aggregated in real time? Will every station want to transmit program data for the entire market, or only the data pertaining to channels programmed by the signals owner? And with no standards for radio displays, what will the interface look like? Interestingly, a similar set of issues applies to the delivery of real time traffic information via HD Radio's ancillary data infrastructure. And that's why Korean-based Cydle, a developer of mobile navigation technology, is also involved in the project.
In short, the trails now taking place in southern New England are designed to gather some fundamental data on what's possible using some of the unique characteristics of HD Radio and the IBOC approach to digital radio delivery. NAB FastRoad has issued a preliminary document that gives some interesting perspective to the ongoing trail work, and sheds light on one way technical innovation may make terrestrial digital more relevant in a convergent media world.