The digital age has arrived


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The beginning of January saw the introduction and first commercial sale of consumer IBOC receivers in the United States. This day brought forth mixed feelings across the radio industry. The IBOC supporters see it as another step forward in the transition to a terrestrial digital system. The IBOC opponents view it as another blow to the stake already being forced into the heart of radio. While I don't see a decisive mark for or against broadcasters with the January events, I am seeing a raised consumer awareness that includes some unfortunate misconceptions.

Having consumer receivers available removes the chicken-or-the-egg debate for acceptance of the service. While there are only a handful of stations transmitting IBOC signals, it is possible to hear them now. Granted, the receivers are not available everywhere yet, but it has to start somewhere. If we draw a parallel from the proliferation of RBDS to a potential acceptance of IBOC, we're already one step ahead with IBOC. I don't recall the same fuss being made about RBDS that I am seeing with IBOC over the past weeks.

National news magazines, local and national newspapers and news websites all carried something about the introduction of the IBOC receivers. Most of the stories I read all had the same theme, mainly dwelling on the press release points issued by Ibiquity. The promise of reduced interference, less noise, enhanced services (data) and clearer sound are bound to attract the interest of consumers. Unfortunately, consumers don't understand the technology, so the anticipated drastic improvement may be a disappointment if it is not actually experienced.

I read several consumer reviews of the event, but an article in Time magazine seems to carry the common theme. An article in the Jan. 12 issue repeats the IBOC dogma that the reporter was fed. I'm sure that she had no idea what some of the statements meant. The point that really made me shake my head was the use of the term “high definition radio.” The IBOC technology developed by Ibiquity has been branded HD Radio, which is a trademarked name. I have never heard Ibiquity refer to the technology as high-definition radio. I doubt many broadcasters would call it that anyway. Considering that the technology is based on a low bit-rate transmission scheme with a perceptual audio encoder algorithm, it's technically crippled from the start. The HDC audio encoder sounds exponentially better than the previously used algorithm, but there are limitations.

The Time article made a few statements that stand to hinder the acceptance of IBOC. The first concerned the overall quality. The reporter stated that she expected the digital signal to sound richer than the analog signal. This misconception is not new to IBOC, but it is common to the expectation of “digital.” Consumers have been trained that anything digital is better than anything analog without the necessary qualifiers. In the reporter's view, the digital signal sounds harsh and crackly while the analog had less static. I have been told that the reporter did not know the difference between studio noise in the source and transmission noise, but it doesn't matter. Her perception is her reality. She thinks that analog sounds better than digital.

The reporter did notice that the quality difference between AM analog to AM IBOC was more distinct than the quality difference between FM analog and FM IBOC. Broadcasters have known this all along. Consumers are just starting to learn it.

Another claim that was made is that the FCC adopted IBOC as the U.S. standard. We know that this is not yet the case. This is a lesser point, but further proves to me that the consumer media does not fully understand what is being developed and blindly believes whatever information is fed to them.

The Consumer Electronics Show ended on Jan. 11. The news stories I read ran in the first few weeks of the month. By the end of January, the news had almost completely disappeared. IBOC had its flash of consumer spotlight. Time will tell if any of it sticks or if it was all just a puff of smoke.

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