When hi-fi meets Wi-Fi


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The classic model of a radio station's operation considers the singular function of providing a source of audio entertainment to a listening audience. Programming is created in the studio and transmitted via the station's transmitter. While this model is still in use today, the singular function can be divided into two separate elements: creation and transmission.

These two functions are actually separate. We have seen this in a small way with Internet streaming. The program material is still created in the same way, but the program stream now feeds a transmitter for terrestrial transmission and a Web server for Internet distribution. With this in mind, single stations can function more like networks by creating the program stream regardless of the transmission scheme.

In time, I expect that radio stations will realize the disconnect between content creation and delivery. The programming will be delivered via alternate means in addition to wide-area coverage of the single transmitter. Cable systems, Internet providers and even cellular telephone networks are only some of the possibilities.

Internet radio has already proved itself as a means of reaching a mass audience. I listen to Internet radio stations quite often. And, like many online listeners, I do it while sitting at my PC. While it has seen some obstacles with content licensing issues, and it has yet to be shown as a viable method of revenue generation, several attempts have been made to market this delivery mechanism in a form that is familiar to radio listeners.

Remember Kerbango? This was an Internet appliance designed to emulate a traditional radio but used to listen to online stations. The product never came to fruition after floundering for a few years before being bought by 3Com and then being officially killed. The Kerbango never shipped. Other products, such as those from Sonicbox and Penguinradio, had similar functions, but they actually shipped to the market. To my knowledge, none of these were that successful. These were products ahead of their time.

I believe that the main reason for these efforts not making radio history was due to the lack of broadband connectivity in homes. It was available, but not common and rather expensive. Today this has all changed.

With the increased use of home networking, and now wireless home networking, there is a renewed interest in streaming media delivery in the home, not to mention a better chance of it being widely accepted. New products are bypassing the radio-only thinking and moving to media control centers, which are something like boom boxes on steroids. Available and inexpensive broadband connectivity certainly helps, but newer technologies add more freedom and flexibility to the system: wireless networking in the home.

With Wi-Fi connectivity, attached devices are portable within the range of the network. A laptop can access anything stored on the network anywhere around the house. Depending on the configuration, even your neighbors can connect.

Home listeners have access to music stored on the PC or from Internet radio stations. With the concepts introduced by the Kerbango, other companies have introduced the function of a media player with the familiarity of a boom box. A few such systems have been unveiled from Linksys, Philips and Reciva. With downloaded (legally or otherwise) music, ripped music libraries and Internet streams, several listening options are available.

The timing on this comes as IBOC is reaching critical mass. Whether you like IBOC or hate it, the point is that consumer listening is moving ahead. Terrestrial radio needs to move ahead as well, and radio stations need to look ahead to supplemental transmission paths for the future. Digital transmission is the immediate step in that direction. IBOC may or may not be the perfect solution, but with every other form of audio entertainment media moving to enhanced features and capabilities, terrestrial radio runs the risk of being left behind.


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