Saturday, 13 March 2010

DAB converters for portable analogue radios? It’s a “no no”

All of us would like to invent a ‘killer application’ that could captivate consumers with its usefulness, change the future direction of technology, and make millions. But there is a big difference between inventing one in our heads and turning it into a technical reality in the marketplace.

The converter/adapter that is able to magically transform a portable analogue radio into a DAB radio is one such invention. It exists in the heads of the DAB radio lobby as a means to persuade politicians that mass consumer conversion to DAB is a possibility rather than a pipedream. Unfortunately, it does not exist in reality.

When the notion of such a converter was mentioned last year, I examined the analogue portable radios scattered in almost every room of our home. The only access to their internal electronics that some of them allow is via a headphone socket – and when you insert anything into that, the loudspeaker cuts out. So how exactly could any kind of gizmo be ‘added’ to such radios to transform them into DAB?

My doubts were confirmed when Intellect, the trade organisation that represents UK radio receiver manufacturers, wrote to Parliament in February 2010 and stated: “Whilst it is technically feasible, there are currently no products on the market that can adapt an analogue radio to receive DAB signals.”

Subsequently, Laurence Harrison of Intellect presented evidence in person on this issue to the Lords’ Communications Committee: “A converter would have to include within it pretty much all the components, bar the speakers, of a standard digital radio anyway. Therefore, the cost differential for a converter will be minimal between that and just buying a new digital radio.”

The converter is a prime example of the radio industry’s current pre-occupation with technology being the answer to its problems. Last week, Steve Orchard (former group programme director of GWR, former operations director of GCap) wrote an opinion piece which proclaimed: “DAB is vital to commercial radio’s future.” What?? Sorry?? Surely, it is ‘content’ which is vital to the future of commercial radio, just as it always has been, and just as it always will be. Content = listening = advertising = revenues = profit. Whereas: DAB = platform = infrastructure = investment = risk.

The radio industry desperately needs a strategy that focuses on producing content, rather than focusing on DAB. We already have platform businesses such as Arqiva whose function is transmission infrastructure such as DAB and FM; and we already have consumer electronics companies that produce radio receiver hardware. I don’t see Arqiva or Roberts trying to produce radio shows, so why does the radio industry so desperately want to control platforms and invent hardware?

As ever, the challenge for the radio industry is to create content that is sufficiently compelling, regardless of the platform. Consumers gravitate to content, whatever platform that content is on. The history of radio has demonstrated this time and time again. For example:

• 90% of the population listen to analogue radio for around 20 hours per week (on FM and AM platforms that the radio industry has lobbied to have shut down)
• BBC Five Live and TalkSport attract 5% and 2% shares respectively of all radio listening, despite being broadcast on AM (a platform that commercial radio lobbied the regulator in the 2000s to write off for mainstream formats)
• Pirate radio with poor FM reception continues to attract significant audiences in cities (stations which the radio industry has long lobbied to be shut down, despite itself not offering consumers any comparable content)
• Atlantic 252 attracted a 4% share of all UK radio listening in 1994, despite broadcasting from Ireland on Long Wave (a platform the BBC tried to shut down in 1992)
• Ricky Gervais’ radio show remains the most downloaded podcast ever, despite never having been broadcast and only ever having been made available as an online download (a platform largely ignored by commercial radio).

Sometimes, it seems that parts of the radio industry have stumbled so far away from their core product, content, that the eventual outcome might even be (to adapt Steve Orchard’s comment): ‘DAB is a vital part of commercial radio’s death’. The sector’s profitability is already zero. This is no time for distractions that will not directly put bums on seats.

The quotes below offer more detail on recent dialogue concerning the mythical DAB adapter.
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“For customers who don’t want to buy a new radio set, it will be possible to convert existing sets to digital instead. An adaptor device will come onto the market soon that will cost around £50 and, in time, conversion may cost less than a new radio set.”
Digital Radio UK
2 December 2009
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House of Lords
Select Committee on Communications
20 January 2010

Witnesses:
Ford Ennals, Chief Executive, Digital Radio UK
Barry Cox, Chairman, Digital Radio Working Group

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: There is, I might suggest, a vital difference. It is comparatively easy and cheap to convert a television set to digital with a set-top box that you can buy from Tesco for £20. Can you do that to an analogue radio set?

Mr Ennals: I fully expect that there will be low-cost converters available. We were talking to companies which were making these last week, and they are talking about DAB adaptors for about £20 or £25. When the DTT Freeview development started, those products were costing over £100. The market will become more competitive, prices will come down. You can replace your radio for £25 with a digital radio. There will be a burden of cost on the consumer, but it is significantly more affordable than it would have been in the past.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: If it is as cheap to buy a new digital set as it is to buy a converter, there is a fair disposal problem involved in 50 to 100 million radio sets that are good to go to the rubbish dump.

Mr Cox: There is undoubtedly a difference with television because you can keep your old set and put the adaptor on it. I heard what Ford was saying, and it would be useful if some adaptors come on the market, but the likelihood is that many of those analogue sets will have to be disposed of.
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Intellect [UK trade association for the electronics industries]
Written evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee
1 February 2010

“Converting analogue radios to digital:
Whilst it is technically feasible, there are currently no products on the market that can adapt an analogue radio to receive DAB signals. Our members would undoubtedly produce such devices should a clear market demand ensue following the passing of the Digital Economy Bill.
However, simply adapting an analogue product will not allow listeners to enjoy the full range of benefits that DAB can offer. With some entry level digital radio receivers costing as little as £25, adapter devices are likely to cost more than digital receivers at the start.
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House of Lords
Select Committee on Communications
24 February

Witness:
Laurence Harrison, Director, Consumer Electronics, Intellect

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: What about converters for what are known as ‘kitchen’ sets? [….]

Mr Harrison: Converters – if you like, a set-top box for an analogue radio – are technically possible. I think we need to look at just how appealing that would be for the listener. A converter would have to include within it pretty much all the components, bar the speakers, of a standard digital radio anyway. Therefore, the cost differential for a converter will be minimal between that and just buying a new digital radio.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: So they are not going to fly off the shelves?

Mr Harrison: It will depend on just how much the individual values their analogue set. Of course, converters would also come into play if you are talking about, for example, a large expensive hi-fi system; they would work for that, and if you like the sound quality of that hi-fi then a converter may be an option, but I do think we need to be careful, purely because we know that the price differential, for example, will not be that great between a converter and a standard digital set.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: So for big, stand-alone hi-fi sets with colossal speakers and everything else it might make sense but for the small ‘kitchen’ portable a no no?

Mr Harrison: We know that some manufacturers are looking at the possibility of introducing a converter, so it may well be that some of those do come to market. I just think for the context we need to be aware of what that converter will look like, and how appealing it may be. I think your assessment is correct.

[…]

Lord Maxton: There is a major difference; with your existing television all you need is a box.

Mr Harrison: Indeed.

Lord Maxton: A converter, basically. With radios that is not the case.

Mr Harrison: That is true.

Lord Maxton: You do not have to get rid of the televisions but you do have to get rid of the radios.

Mr Harrison: That is absolutely true. All I would say on TVs – you are absolutely right and I do not want to downplay the situation at all ……

1 comment:

DP said...

There seems to be a very serious lack of relevant knowledge. And, relevant experience, prior hits and misses. Expertise, knowledge of realities from experience.

These are ideas, too quickly touted as solutions. They are really desires, still dreams and goals, and attempts to satisfy. And, not very realistic, considering realities.


Another is the Integrated Stations Listing. A “working prototype” is recently touted—only 5 weeks after the need was expressed in Government hearings. (Perhaps, 10 years after the user desire should have been realized by product engineering, product development, marketing, sales, and management people.) http://www.drdb.org/article.php?id=846&from=hom

“A working prototype of an integrated FM and digital station guide which will enable listeners to tune seamlessly between FM and digital frequencies and select stations by name regardless of whether they are on FM or digital, has been successfully developed just five weeks after the radio industry announced its commitment to work with receiver manufacturers to explore the technology.

The integrated station guide automatically scans for both DAB and FM stations and then displays them in one alphabetical list to the user. The working prototype was developed by engineers at Frontier Silicon, the leading chip manufacturer, and demonstrated on a Roberts ‘ecologic 1’ radio at the Digital Radio Group Meeting held by Intellect, the trade association of the UK technology industry, last week, and attended by leading manufacturers.

As the radio industry moves towards a digital future, the development of an integrated station guide is a significant initiative in ensuring that local commercial and community stations which stay on FM, along with new services launching on newly vacated analogue spectrum, remain as accessible to listeners as those stations that have migrated to digital only.”


This doesn’t seem to be even a proof of concept, much less a prototype.

The need is to review, select, and play stations from a single list. Scanning both FM and DAB bands for "acceptable" local reception, and then integrating the resulting station titles into a single coherent list are only the first parts of the problem (already done on Internet radio). Maintaining that list accurately is another.

The more difficult part is to play quickly back and forth—to switch the tuner electronics (and aerials), tune, and play quickly and consistently. The difficulty is why FM and AM are always separate groups of settings on auto and other radios. DAB and FM is more difficult. DAB already seems to have a lag time in tuning until play.

No mention is made of actually tuning and playing. The press release words “which will enable listeners to tune seamlessly” seem to infer that part still needs to be solved. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/mar/03/uk-dab-fm-menu-system

Additional software, as well as hardware to run the software, and maintenance and improvement all add costs. (And, availability only from one, limited supplier increases costs.) All making this desire/solution unlikely.


(This is an integrated station names listing. It is not, as originally described, an EPG, Electronic Program Guide--there is no program scheduling information.)

And, it was just noted that the BBC’s different Radio 1 for FM and BBC Radio 1 for DAB will cause confusion…. This is only one of many current confusing insufficiencies in station titles by stations (and including RAJARs). And, it is not at all a trivial task to get the radio industry to get them unique and consistent.