The current view of HD Radio (Nov 2005)

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After spending about half of September and October on the road attending the IBC, NAB Radio Show, AES, the SBE National Meeting/BEE and some other events, I can return to some semblance of a normal routine; at least for a few months before the planning for NAB2006 begins. During each fall convention, I was able to talk with lots of people about many topics. One of the most common topics, not surprisingly, was HD Radio. The overall opinions were mixed: some hate it, some like it, many are not yet convinced.

The practical matter is that the HD Radio IBOC system is here. It's installed at many stations already. It's planned to be installed at many more.

Is it perfect? No. In reality the system is still being refined, but what is currently available has shown that it works. Like any new technology, there will be early adopters who set the course. For some, this means that they must keep pace or get out of the way.

So what about the other systems that have been mentioned? So far, Cam-D has a handful of stations, but we're still not allowed to learn anything about how this system works. FM Extra is the most recent, and the latest word is that receivers are supposed to be ready any day. Both these systems have an uphill struggle because of Ibiquity's head start.

A few times the idea of placing digital signals on new spectrum was suggested. Unfortunately, the time for this idea has long passed. Eureka-147 was proposed and rejected for this reason. With the TV transition to digital, some people are looking to the vacated channels. The problem is that Congress wants to see the revenue from spectrum auctions, and I don't know of any broadcaster that wants to begin bidding for new spectrum. In addition, there are louder pleas for spectrum for public safety and homeland security. Add to this the feeling in Congress that broadcasters horde too much spectrum already. We have to recast our image before new spectrum will ever be allocated to radio.

There is considerable discussion (and some unpleasant accusations) about surround for HD Radio. Most often, the debate is between the two basic methods used to provide a surround signal. I covered this during a session at the AES Convention. Like any decision, there are trade-offs between cost, implementation and listener return.

For many stations “good enough for consumer ears” may not be pristine and perfect, but it is a practical approach. The effort to pair an artistic stereo mix with a discrete surround mix may provide the more faithful reproduction of the original, but the reality is that few stations will want to dedicate the resources into doing this right now. This may change when the amount of surround material with a corresponding stereo downmix increases.

I'm still putting my money on multicasting being the catalyst for HD Radio, mainly because of the additional revenue stream. While some broadcasters may choose to place yet another sterile and safe format on the additional channels, those who are willing to make a small investment in creating the additional stream will reap the rewards.

The ultimate use of surround would be to place it on multicast streams. If the reduced bit-rate channel can support surround, it makes perfect sense.

The future readiness of consumer hardware is an ongoing concern. If I buy a radio today, what's my option for future capabilities short of buying a new receiver? Cell phones and media players are all software-based. Updates can be loaded as needed. The HD Radio receiver needs to follow this example. Doing so will be a departure from the current method, because that means my car receiver will be more like a PSP or a PDA than a hardware device. I realize that this presents its own challenges to manufacturers, but it is the way that technology is heading.

The HD Radio rollout is here. The time to design a dream system is behind us. We're already working on enhancements to HD Radio.


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