Radio is about to get a shot in the arm. Satellite radio stands
ready to serve millions with the start of services from Sirius and XM.
Wall Street expects that the services will have a combined subscriber
base of 60,000 by the end of this year. This expectation grows to a
combined 8 million by 2004. That's a lot of listeners.
So where does this leave the terrestrial radio stations? IBiquity
Digital is working hard and fast to complete its IBOC DAB system. The
latest demonstrations show the FM process very well. While the
improvement is subtle at times, the main difference is in the stereo
separation and the high-frequency clarity. The AM demonstrations also
sound very good, although the demos I have heard do not display the
advances to their full potential because of the source material (mostly
On the last few demonstrations I have attended, which were at NAB
and the ARMA Expo, I listened to the material, but I have also watched
the other demonstration observers. It is interesting that the level of
understanding concerning IBOC development is truly digital; IBOC
knowledge is all or nothing. Some people are very familiar with the
concept down to fine details. Most people are not aware of the current
technology at all. Most of the people I ride with have not heard the
One issue that has been raised deals with simulcasting the analog
and digital signals. Lucent Digital Radio proposed sending different
program material on the analog and digital carriers. USA Digital Radio
did not support this idea, which has been carried through to the
iBiquity method. This is mainly to overcome the digital acquisition
period required when the radio is tuned. The analog audio plays
immediately while the radio's buffer works on the digital carrier. A
seamless transition from analog to digital then occurs.
This is a necessary step during the hybrid analog/digital phase.
Until the acquisition time is reduced, no consumer will tolerate
waiting six seconds until audio is produced. I expect that it will be
possible to shorten the acquisition time at some point, but multicast
audio is not part of the design of the current hybrid IBOC system.
Once a fully digital system is used, I see no reason why the entire
data pipe could not be used for more than one audio channel. It is
expected that the transition period will take up to 10 years. After
that, allow the broadcasters to choose how they use the bandwidth. By
then, smarter radios will be available that can adapt to varying data
transmission rates and download additional encoding algorithms.
I have always felt that the improvement in audio quality will lead
to IBOC acceptance. Granted, most consumers can't hear the difference
between medium bit-rate and high bit-rate, but there must be more
incentive to buying a new radio than a lateral move.
The added data capacity has not been a primary interest to me, but
my feeling has changed. Internet radio and satellite radio offer
additional information and program data. As services grow, listeners
will become accustomed to this feature. Terrestrial radio will need
similar enhancements to survive. Some of this capability was available
with RBDS, but there was no precedent for it. It was technology in
search of a market that had zero demand.
I have experienced a change of heart about IBOC. I visited the
iBiquity offices after the ARMA Expo. The developers in the lab are
serious about the technology. Most of the researchers and developers
have radio backgrounds. They believe in what they are doing and that it
will work well.
Chriss Scherer, editor