With the NAB2004 convention just days away, broadcast equipment manufacturers ready their wares for the annual showing while the attendees plan their agendas. The NAB convention is a top-technology show, and I realize that I'm not taking any chances in predicting that this year's convention will be full of clever product introductions. For radio, the hot topic will again be IBOC — but this year it will be different.
There have been demonstrations of the technology, propositions for enhancements and examples of applications at previous conventions, but for the most part the topic has been little more than pie-in-the-sky conjecturing.
One primary concern has always been when this transition and wide acceptance to IBOC will occur. In January, several consumer radio receiver manufacturers committed to producing receivers, which are due to be available soon. This eliminates the problem of creating a signal that no one can hear.
Many stations have investigated transmission methods besides the high- and low-level combining approach. The FCC is currently evaluating the use of separate antennas for the analog and digital signals, which will allow some stations to make the transition quicker, either by using a backup facility or by installing a separate digital system.
So while the question of when still looms, the answer is that it is as close as it has ever been and is just at our fingertips.
The other side of the IBOC debate is why. Many have asked why the transition is necessary, and what the benefit is to stations. The transition will require a capital investment for stations that cannot easily be shown to produce a valid financial return. In addition, IBOC has been called a lateral change; one that creates a solution to a non-existent problem. The key has been in finding the killer app for IBOC.
So what will this killer app be? For some time we have heard about the data capabilities of an IBOC signal. Demonstrations and mock-ups have shown enhanced program-associated data (PAD) and non-program-associated data (NPAD), such as weather, traffic, stock tickers and sports scores. Because these are proposed ideas and not concrete examples, they are sometimes hard to accept. Analog FM has had the capability to transmit some data for many years, but only recently has it become of widespread interest. Data will be a valuable part of IBOC, but it is not yet showing to be the killer app because it is not fully defined in scope or nature.
A recently completed project shows real promise as the killer app for IBOC. NPR, Harris and Kenwood worked together on the Tomorrow Radio project, which proposes to provide more than one audio stream on a single channel. (Read John Battison's report on the project on page 62.)
The study and supporting report show that multiple streams are possible and that the system works, which provides a real implementation of the technology. Broadcasters already know how to create a program stream, which provides the link to the practical use of the technology.
The nay sayers complain that there are already too many audio entertainment sources available to an ever-increasingly splintered listening public. This may be true, but the solution is not in complaining about the problem, it is in finding the solution to profit from it.
Can radio stations provide a second audio stream? With current content management and automation systems it should be quite easy. This approach is already being tried on the TV side by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. This station has launched an all-news channel to supplement its regular program stream at a minimal cost. The same approach can be applied to radio.
We have been waiting for IBOC's killer app. Tomorrow Radio may be the answer.
March 2004 is the 100th issue of Radio magazine! Thank you for helping us reach this milestone. 10 years and 100 issues is great combination.
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