Stunted growth

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Stunted growth

Jun 1, 2002 12:00 PM, Chriss Scherer, editor

Already 10 years in the making, in-band on-channel digital audio broadcasting has promised to be the next evolution of terrestrial radio; an evolution that would carry the radio industry through the next 100 years.

The concept, plans and tests have all promised improved audio service with additional capabilities. From the beginning there have been reports and articles about various DAB technologies. Do you remember the early comparisons at the NASA Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland? I attended a demonstration of that setup. At that time it was determined that more work was needed on the versions of IBOC being evaluated. Looking back, I wonder why anyone even bothered with the tests and evaluations. It seems that little of what was done then is being used today.

From an original batch of developers, the field narrowed to one, then two, then three and then back down to two and then one. You cannot call it a roller coaster. Roller coasters move fast. This has been more of a tilt-a-whirl; it just goes around and around.

So after 10 years of IBOC development, what does the industry have to show?

Last year, Ibiquity announced that it was ready to move full steam ahead. Agreements were struck with several transmitter manufacturers to produce hardware. Plans were made to announce the technology launch at the Consumer Electronics Show last January, followed by the launch at the NAB convention in April. Meanwhile, the actions of the NRSC and FCC have not exactly propelled the entire process forward. IBOC is still moving ahead, but not at the pace that was expected. The announcement of the licensing fees has turned most broadcasters away. The passed-through costs from the equipment manufacturers was one that would likely have been grudgingly accepted. A cost that is 15 times the FCC's regulatory fee is more than most stations are willing to pay, let alone actually afford.

DAB isn't dead in the water. Satellite radio began its service while IBOC was still on the drawing board. The satellite providers aren't immune to problems either. Both XM and Sirius are battling the wireless industry over possible interference issues in the 2.3GHz/2.4GHz bands. The skyward broadcasters are also under continuing scrutiny about their terrestrial repeaters. While their short-term plans do not include any repeater-based program origination, the owners will look at new services and methods once the services are established and showing a profit. One of these services likely will be local content.

Back to IBOC. NAB was its big chance. The FM tests looked good. The NRSC endorsed this half of the system. Then the AM tests were evaluated and looked fair on one part and failed on another. After years of demonstrating AAC encoding, the PAC algorithm was loaded before it could be optimized and then demonstrated for the convention. Between the NRSC endorsing only half the AM system and the PAC demos sounding terrible, we were shown that IBOC is not yet ready. In addition, on the convention floor the sour taste of IBOC licensing fees and passed-through hardware costs were still strong in the minds of attendees.

I want a digital radio service. I've waited 10 years for one. It's still not here.

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