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Wolves at the Door: Can DAB+ survive?

Have you ever noticed how the time periods between major technological advances in radio have become shorter and shorter.

It all started out with AM nearly a century ago.

Along came FM as a commercial service around 40 years later, then AM stereo, streaming audio and digital radio all emerged within the next 40 years, and, who knows what the next four decades will hold in store.

When you look at the UK and Europe, you realise that Australia has really come late to the digital radio party.

That’s not completely surprising given that the technology is extremely expensive to rollout, especially in a big country, whose population density, in the main, is very low.

Out past the major population centres, the cost benefits of installing and operating DAB+ from a flat-footed start are dubious at best.

Many years have now passed since DAB+ was selected as the future path for Australian radio.

One of the problems we’re now facing, as an industry, is that DAB+ is 20 year old technology, and, like all of us, it’s getting older and can’t rest on its laurels.

Unfortunately, in those metro areas where DAB+ has been tested and is now operating, no commercial operator is, as yet, generating any worthwhile revenue from their digital services, with the exception of those, who have been smart enough to lease out some of their spectrum to third parties.

Facing the prospect of having to cough-up quite a sizeable chunk of their hard-earned cash or go cap in hand to the government for funding, for which there’s no guarantee, a number of regional operators are starting to wonder if digital radio may be looming as a financial ‘black hole’.

Then, just while these regional guys were doing a lot of this ‘wondering’, another technological development has raised its head as a potential challenger for DAB+.

... and, where has this would-be challenger come from?

Well. Surprise! Surprise!

From those warm and helpful folks at the nation’s telcos, of course.

Now, Australia’s telecommunications giants want to be the next ones to put their hands in broadcasting’s pocket.

Problem is, when you seriously look at their offering, it’s not that easy to dismiss out of hand; there are some real advantages.

First and foremost is that the upfront costs for this new technology would be very small compared to the rollout costs of DAB+ across regional areas.

So, what kind of technology are we talking about here?

Well, just about everybody, who can turn on a television, has heard of the benefits “4G” offers.

One of those benefits is that 4G uses LTE or ‘long term evolution’ to deliver things, like You Tube videos, iHeart Radio streams and your very own station’s streaming to on-line listeners’ mobile phones.

If you ever listen to this streaming on a hi-fi speaker, you’ll quickly discover its full digital quality with exceedingly low noise, making it ideal for delivering high quality audio.

But, here’s the best bit.

There are other benefits of “4G” that aren’t currently being utilised.

One of these is a development called LTE-B or LTE-Broadcast; tech-heads may also know it as ‘eMBMS’.

For the rest of us, in non-technical speak, LTE-Broadcast is a relatively new development, where a service provider, like Telstra, Vodafone or Optus, can carve off part of their mobile bandwidth and allow local radio stations to broadcast content through mobile base stations.

You’re probably raising your hand at this point and asking “don’t we have access to this type of streaming already?”.

The answer is ‘yes’, but it’s not at a truly professional level.

As the telcos love to tell it, mobile coverage is now virtually everywhere throughout the country.

It’s certainly in every major population centre covered by licence area plans (LAPs), so, unlike DAB+ in most regional areas, the physical infrastructure is already up and running, and, the capital costs have been met by the various telcos in providing mobile coverage.

So, these mobile service providers are looking for another way to ‘slice the apple’, and, commercial radio is their next target.

As technology advances during the next 2-3 years, I believe we’re going to see more and more devices coming to market with LTE modems and SIM card slots.

This will include TVs and media set top boxes, but, most importantly for radio, the connected car and discrete portable receivers, similar in design to those used for DAB+ .

With the arrival of these consumer products, we’ll then be talking a relatively short time frame to implement a nationwide service, which could well be years ahead of the proposed rollout of DAB+ in many regional areas.

Right now, Telstra is the main player in this new technology space.

The telco giant, with its massive financial reserves, plans to rollout the technology for this service and offer LTE-B as a nationally-available product either late this year or early next year.

It appears that Telstra hasn’t been sitting on its hands, claiming to have been the first telco in the world to conduct live trials with LTE-B.

Now, with years of research invested, they believe they’re leading the charge toward the next major move in broadcasting, not just in Australia, but throughout the World.

In basic terms, the way LTE-B will operate is no more complicated for broadcasters than sending their digital program audio to a DAB+ multiplex or streaming service.

In the past, we’ve all listened to mobile streaming and experienced its frustrating signal dropouts, particularly, if you happen to be driving around or riding on public transport.

It leaves you fuming; it’s not very professional at all.

The great advance that LTE-B is able to offer is its integrity and reliability.

LTE-Broadcast differs from the basic streaming service because all the data packets it handles are synchronised between every base station, so when you crossover between cells you’ll get uninterrupted streaming.

At least, that’s the promise.

The new service will not only be able to offer local radio in full digital quality but will also carry local TV stations for mobile viewers.

Only licensed broadcasters for each designated LAP will be allowed access to this ‘professional’ level service, and even then, coverage will be restricted to their official licence area.

The delivery of this service to the listener will be controlled by your own station app.

When a potential listener turns on their device, the system will check if your broadcast is available.

If the system fails to connect, the listener will be automatically transferred to the station’s normal internet streaming.

This function is particularly important because whenever listeners have been listening to the service and then travel out of the designated licence area, LTE-B will switchover to the station’s unicast internet streaming feed so they can continue listening.

Supporters of LTE-B like to point out that DAB+ is a pre-defined technology with rigid specifications that were laid down over two decades ago.

They say the quality and functionality of the service is probably not going to get any better than it is right now.

LTE-B, on the other hand, is app driven and flexible.

This means that listeners can update to higher quality audio codecs and operational functions as they become available, just as they do now for many of the apps they use everyday on the net.

But, like everything new, there are always impediments to overcome and these are not insignificant.

Android devices are already capable of supporting LTE-B, but Apple, which controls a large slice of the market, is currently dragging the chain, although there’s talk that this will change in the near future.

So, will LTE-B become the new digital standard?

Well, to get there, it would have to jump some pretty high hurdles and be prepared to taken on many vested interests.

All the commercial stations in metropolitan areas are already members of a DAB+ multiplex consortium.

Each station has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to this form of digital broadcasting, and, it’s highly likely, many will be less than enthusiastic about a potential challenger to that system.

Perhaps the biggest of those hurdles is that broadcasters, particularly regional operators, like to be the ‘masters of their own fate’.

They like to own their own broadcasting facilities; they find it reassuring.

On those occasions when they do have to work with others, they like to do it with likeminded people, who have similar goals and aspirations; not industry outsiders.

In short, broadcasters don’t like third parties controlling their transmission facilities.

Yet, as we know, technology is always evolving; creating new opportunities.

There will always be something innovative, potentially better and more cost-effective on the horizon.

As key players in a technological industry, radio can’t afford to ignore new developments simply because of ‘monies previously committed’ or outdated preconceptions in the way they want to operate.

While doing so may be understandable in the short term, for purely commercial reasons, over the long term, a ‘head in the sand’ attitude would surely be a mistake.

New technology, like LTE-B, whether it gets a look-in or not, continually serves notice on older systems, like DAB+, that it may no longer have the luxury of time on its side, especially with regional Australia’s digital rollout eagerly waiting in the wings.

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