DAB: The View From the Bubbling Mudbath
In defence of British digital radio
These are troubled times for DAB, with the UK's go-it-alone strategy getting a mauling from analysts, the press and from Reg readers. But it's only fair to get the view from inside the industry. Nick Piggott is chief techie at GCap, with a decade's experience in developing and implementing the technology.
GCap is the UK's biggest radio broadcaster, operating Classic FM, Xfm national stations and over 40 local stations. It recently grabbed the headlines when it announced it was cutting back on its DAB broadcasting, although it apparently shelved plans to abandon DAB altogether.
Nick's argument is that DAB is here, the broadcasters are using it, and there's nothing else that can do the job as well for low-power, low-cost reception - particularly when mobile.
Of course, there's not much GCap can do about the regulatory decisions that have shaped the market, and remember that the buck stops with Ofcom. Which then throws the buck out of the window. (Be careful when strolling along Southwark Bridge Road.)
Piggott constantly stressed that while much of the industry is sympathetic to listeners' frustrations, we're at the tail end of the first ten years of implementation. The codecs were licensed for ten years, and the back-end equipment was bought with ten or more years in mind.
So first off, DAB+. With Germany ending its ten year "experiment" with DAB in favour of DAB+ next year - when will we get the superior tech?
Nick views DAB+ as a beautiful and elegant implementation that should delight any engineer.
"The codecs we use today were state of the art in 1999. The latest codecs are astounding. These have been added to DAB+ so bubbling mud should no longer be a problem. Bubbling mud kicks in when the error rate is 1 in 1000; 1 in 100 means the bubbling is unlistenable."
But he says that a DAB+ move wouldn't necessarily translate into a gain for broadcasters:
"If all the radio stations adopted DAB+ and took the opportunity to reduce their capacity, it wouldn't save them any money. The cost of the infrastructure doesn't change, as they have the same transmitters, links, and headend costs, and the proportion used by each operator is the same. So the price stays the same - but 66 per cent of the multiplex goes empty."
"If new stations come on-air in the free space, then obviously the cost gets divided across a larger number of stations, and everyone would pay a little less, but in most cases (outside of London) the multiplexes already have a bit of free space, so it's unlikely there would suddenly be new companies entering the radio business and paying for capacity."
What vexes people is that DAB radios being bought today in the UK are not future proof, although the sets arriving this year for the (larger) German market are. Countries that came late to digital radio can take advantage of the latest technology.
Nick said there were massive inventory issues for the retail channel. If DAB+ was announced today, then nobody would buy a DAB radio.
I replied that since that day was inevitable, postponing it would merely add to the sense of the public having been swindled.
But that's something only Ofcom can decide. And the longer it stalls, the longer the problem festers.
What about audio quality, we wondered?
"We can have high quality, eg Classic FM, but through satellite and cable. It's not for a kitchen top radio. But these sets aren't capable of Hi-fi quality anyway."
The proposition behind DAB was never about better sound quality, he stresses, but choice, program data and the extra services.
We agreed that the data potential of digital radio had barely been tapped, he saw a lot of opportunity for new services, with public transport information a no-brainer.
So. Any regrets?
One, he told us, was that perhaps broadcasters should have ramped up coverage more gradually, rather than arriving with 90 per cent coverage on Day One of the relaunch in 2002. Perhaps 40 per cent coverage would have been an adequate start - and instead of spending that capital on transmission, it could have gone on marketing and promotion.
Even now, however, coverage is far from complete. Muxco received a license for Mid and West Wales last month, in which it promises to roll out "indoor coverage" to 40 per cent of the local adult population... by 2012. Won't broadband internet have overtaken this hobbling nag by then?
Piggott said GCap was committed to transmitting its streams over the net, but that it was most suitable for the "thick part of the long tail" of stations. He talked about taking advantage of new spectrum that could be used by Wimax.
More positively, there were some interesting new devices that could tap into the unused data capabilities, with the mobile networks providing an uplink.
And for low power, there's DVB-H. The French have gone their own way, with a Gallic flavour of DVB-H audio. There's no point replicating that here, thinks Nick, because it means a new infrastructure:
"Both WiMax and DVB-H have been designed to do specific things, and they'll probably do that to some degree or another. However, in both cases access to the network is predicated on a device/subscription model, and the network densities - in terms of number of sites and towers required - are very high. The infrastructure costs are far in excess of those of DAB, so DAB still looks like the right combination of economics and functionality to carry mass-market broadcast radio and associated data services.
DAB's flexibility is its greatest asset, he says:
"I would like to think that DAB is a technology that can span a very wide set of devices. DAB strengths are that it has superior cost of delivery other other forms of wireless. It's handheld, it's mobile, and battery power requirements are lower."
"At one end is the 'kitchen radio', which is a cheap, simple, low-functionality radio device - the ones that now sell around the £20 mark. Towards the other end is a fully integrated, fully connected, handheld, battery-powered media device where DAB is still adding value through a good variety of free-to-air radio channels and data services."
Piggott agrees that the data promise of DAB - which we first highlighted over seven years ago, has been neglected. Public transport is a great example where the one-to-many data stream could be used.
And don't forget the potential for using 3G as an uplink, or phones as a UI - something else we were talking about in 2000. Nick highlights TTP's nanoDAB, due in September. It's a Bluetooth headset with a built-in DAB receiver, and uses the phone as the display. If they build it, will they come? ®