The Future of Radio (after 2009)

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Radio is beginning to have significant competition; will it continue to stand the test of time?

Trends in Technology, Dec 2009

The real reason streaming media will never kill radio

The answer is connectivity.

Radio waves have a tendency to get into places that you wouldn't necessarily expect them to; a lot of effort goes into blocking them.

Internet connectivity, though, for an end user at least, is very much dependent upon the network administrator. If that network admin decides to block your stream from users on his or her network, it's very simple to do. You need to keep in mind that streaming media uses up a lot of network resources — that's the primary reason for blocking. Or, they may just have a policy to not allow streaming. Keeping radio out of your office though — that's a different matter.

Another technical possibility is that an ISP will decide to block streaming media on a source-by-source basis, unless of course, the user is willing to pay extra for it. An alternative to that would be simply to charge by the bit for Internet access. If that were to be the case, the number of applications that use up lots of bandwidth (such as streaming media) diminish.

Internet connectivity — cheap as it has been over the last 10 years — will cause one of two things to happen. The explosion of Internet usage via mobile devices will bog the Internet down to the point that some users will use it less, or; it'll become anything but cheap. I see that as the more likely scenario.

Do you really think major providers are going to continue investing in their internet delivery capability without seeking a large return on their investment?

Take a look at AT&T's network capability. It's easy because it's been in the news a lot lately. A recent New York Times article reveals that AT&T has had trouble with its network's ability to handle all the traffic from 9 million Iphones. AT&T will spend $18 trillion this year alone to upgrade its 3G network so it can better accommodate smart phones (not all of which are Iphones).

And of course it isn't just AT&T having to heavily invest in its network infrastructure. Verizon recently paid nearly $10 billion for nationwide licenses in the 700MHz band, and is now starting to make use of them for its LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology (a variant of 3G). Verizon wants to have 30 markets built-out using this new technology next year, with the entire country's network done by 2014.

It should be no surprise, then, that both AT&T and Verizon are opposed to the FCC's proposed rulemaking with respect to Net neutrality in regards to wireless Internet access. The issue of Net neutrality has come to light because it is technically possible for an ISP to slow down data flow across their network selectively. What if a large provider decided it would make it faster for you (as the end user) to access one particular search engine as opposed to another? Likely then you might form a habit in using the one with faster access. This would be against the rules if the new FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, gets his way.

The point: high-speed wireless Internet access, necessary to connect to real-time streaming media, is going to cost consumers more in the long run. If a service such as radio costs money, some people will opt not to use it or they'll look to free versions of it — just like we provide now. If end-users have two means by which they can access the same content — one free and one not free — many will opt for the free version.

I'm not a futurist — and I don't have a crystal ball to gaze into, or tea leaves to read. I would call myself a technical skeptic. I have seen a lot of technology come and go. Most of it worked great — it was novel in many cases — and in many cases it did something at least somewhat useful. The new technologies that catch on though — like the Ipod — are the exception, not the rule. I believe radio's longevity speaks volumes about its future potential. The creation and development of the Internet is just as important — if not more so — than the development of the telephone system 100 years and more ago. Still, radio will live on because it's a cheap and efficient means of doing what it does.

Irwin is transmission systems supervisor for Clear Channel NYC and chief engineer of WKTU, New York. Contact him at

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