Part of the reason is that it got caught in the onslaught of digital television and the complexities of bringing that new technology to fruition. Digital radio’s need for a new band was overshadowed by the battle over spectrum re-allocation— for example, getting television moved off VHF frequencies to free them up for emergency services and mobile services. During the same time period IBOC technology was also competing for attention. IBOC stands for In-Band On-Channel. In other words, going to digital on the same frequencies currently occupied by the existing AM and FM station. The new service, called HD radio is the final result of that effort.
The FCC approved the plan for IBOC radio in October, 2002. After a period of standards testing and acceptance, HD Radio began operation early this year. Has the wait been worth it? Time will tell. From all appearances HD (incidentally, HD does NOT stand for High-Definition… in fact, it has no meaning) Radio does deliver the quality it has promised. One of its advantages is that it is a relatively inexpensive technology for a radio broadcaster to implement. At the time of this writing (early July) there are already 878 radio stations converted to HD and stations in Europe and Asia are already converting to HD as well. Receivers are just coming on the market in quantities that promise a drop in what are at the moment rather high prices.
What is HD Radio?
What, exactly, is HD Radio, and why would it be important to your church? Of course, if you operate a radio station the answer would be obvious… competitive pressures and additional features. But, if you produce a radio broadcast, or are just a listener, what difference does this make?
To begin with, your conventional AM of FM reception shows no sign of the transition. Your home or car stereo is unaffected by this new technology. If fact, you have probably already listened to stations that have converted and never known the difference. From a conventional radio reception standpoint, nothing has changed. You can only hear a difference with a HD Radio receiver.
From a transmission standpoint, the compressed digital signal is multiplexed on top of the unaltered AM or FM signal. The result however is exceptional. HD-AM Radio provides a FM quality digital signal. HD-FM Radio provides a near-CD quality signal. And in both cases, they also imbed a data stream, which can carry program information, title and artist info and other data, and, most importantly, they do deliver on their promises. Here is where the differences come in.
HD-AM provides a FM quality program channel, along with the imbedded data, and with greatly reduced noise and interference. This means that you can now look to AM to provide the same music programming opportunities currently enjoyed only on FM radio.
HD-FM is where the real impact will be felt. The digital stream is 96Kb, and can be configured to break up into several program channels carrying different programming. The main program is duplicated in the form of what is referred to as HD-1, and you get a CD quality signal which is basically the same digital format as I-POD. The digital channel is also divided up into additional sub-channels. The station might have HD-2 carrying a different music format, and HD-3 could be a talk format or foreign language format. In terms of tuning, the receiver would simply tune to the main frequency.
So, why do we care?
What does this mean to your church? Again, unless people buy the HD receivers, it will mean nothing. But let’s assume for the moment that HD radio takes off, and car radios come standard with HD included. Then you have, if you will, two or three times the number of FM radio stations available in any market to choose from. Perhaps the cost of broadcast time for your Sunday morning service has been too much of a stretch, or your youth group wants to do a 3 hour rock show. With two or three times as many available channels in your community, costs will certainly drop to allow you a better opportunity. Also, since the HD2 and HD3 channels are located adjacent to the main program channel, you might even pick up a channel located on the dial with the most popular station in town. Not a bad deal.
Now, back to reality. An amazing revolution in technology choice, driven by the transition to an almost entirely digital world, and greatly expanded range of choices presented by the internet, leaves HD-Radio with a problem. With internet radio growing at an unbelievable pace, and radio listening habits being developed in front of the computer instead of in the car or poolside radio, what is HD radio’s advantage? Certainly not quality. A high quality internet radio stream is still better than HD radio. Maybe… portability. You can’t get your favorite internet radio station in the car of at poolside. Yes you can… just not yet.
Internet WI-MAX coverage (that is, city wide wireless internet) is being implemented beginning later this year. It is certainly not moving at the same pace as HD radio, but it soon will be. Of course, when this happens, your laptop will become your radio as well. But more importantly, IP radio receivers set up for WI-MAX will also be entering the market. The first WI-MAX cards for laptops will be on the market around the time you read this article.
In 2007, car radios with HD tuners will be available. In 2008, car radios with WI-MAX IP tuners are also expected on the market. So, who will win the race? Both delivery methods will provide a competitive signal, and both will certainly be viable candidates for your future broadcast consideration. And as the marketplace always will, the costs will come into alignment with the quality and availability of the product.
If your are a regular reader of this column, you have already picked up on the idea that my expectations are that the internet will win this battle. IP radio and IPTV are more than just the name of a method for moving signals about. They are overtaking every other method, if that isn’t already an accomplished fact. Almost everything you see on TV or hear on the radio has, at some point, moved about using the IP format. It will only be a matter of time before that will be the final delivery vehicle for radio as well.
There is one remaining question: Will HD gain the momentum required to be the leader, or has the ten year delay between the Digital Radio tests and IBOC/HD radio implementation simply been too long?