Tech File: HD Radio

Jul 05, 2006

Most radio listeners can't turn on the radio these days without hearing a commercial about this new finagled thing called HD Radio. While the commercials may peak curiosity, they don't tell much about what HD Radio is, so UPI's Tech File decided to go straight to the source and talked with iBiquity Digital Corporation President and CEO Bob Struble, whose company is the owner of the HD Radio License.

Based in Columbia, Md., iBiquity is the sole developer and licensor of HD Radio technology, which is enabling AM and FM stations to move beyond analog and leverage the many benefits of digital broadcasting. According to Struble, iBiquity Digital is a privately-held corporation whose investors include 15 of the nation's top radio broadcasters, including ABC, Clear Channel and CBS Radio; leading financial institutions, such as Grotech Capital Group, Intel Capital, J.P. Morgan Partners, New Venture Partners, Pequot Capital and J&W Seligman; and strategic partners Ford Motor Company, Harris, Texas Instruments and Visteon.

Q. Can you explain what HD Radio is, and how it works?

A. HD Radio works by transmitting digital audio and data in empty "side bands" in the existing AM and FM spectrum, allowing listeners to enjoy many of the same types of benefits they've experienced with other digital technologies, such as CDs, DVDs, iPods, cameras, and mobile phones. The first thing HD Radio listeners notice is the superior sound quality -- AM sounds like analog FM; FM is comparable to a CD. But that's just the beginning. HD Radio also provides more choices via advanced new services, such as multicasting. This feature enables FM stations to broadcast multiple streams of unique programming over a single frequency. More than 250 stations around the country are already offering multicast programming, featuring diverse formats ranging from Americana to Extreme Hip-Hop to Opera. HD Radio technology also allows for text information to be scrolled across the product displays, including, but not limited to, artist names & song titles, local weather forecasts and traffic alerts. It's important to keep in mind that these are the capabilities available today with the HD Radio system. There is also a range of exciting new features under development that we will begin to roll out in the near future.

Q. What distinguishes HD Radio from satellite and over-the-air radio?

A. First, HD Radio is "over the air" AM/FM radio, only it's better because it features significantly improved sound quality, more programming choices and innovative data services. Your favorite radio station stays in its same place on the radio dial, but when you have an HD Radio receiver, you are able to experience all of the benefits of digital that I described above. And there are no subscription fees, so it's free.

Satellite radio is more like the pay channels on a cable system. Some people choose to pay for additional channels, but many do not. Also, while the satellite services are national, AM and FM HD Radio stations are your local, community stations.

Q. Will this increase the spectrum of available channels? If so, what procedures will you have in place for people who want to launch new channels?

A. It does not increase the physical spectrum in which channels reside, but it certainly expands the programming choices available to listeners. Stations are free to launch whatever channels and programming they choose. And as you can see on the HD Radio website (www.hdradio.com), the variety of new channels is dazzling.

Q. Is there an additional cost involved for local radio stations to broadcast in HD?

A. The initial hardware investment for FM stations averages $100,000; less for AM stations.

Q. How do you convince them to broadcast in this new format?

A. We don't have to do much to convince them. Station owners see the amount of digital competition that exists today in the form of satellite radio, iPods, Internet, cell phones, video games, and on and on. Most broadcasters now realize that, if they are going to stay vital into the 21st century, they need to compete on a level playing field, and that means going digital.

Q. The first set of radios that you are marketing are desktop models for the home, can you tell us a little about these models?

A. Actually, the first radios were for the automotive market, from JVC, Kenwood, Panasonic, Eclipse and Sanyo. These companies continue to make HD Radio receivers that you can install in your car to replace your old analog radio.

The most popular model today is the Recepter Radio HD, a tabletop radio from Boston Acoustics. In addition, home stereo components are available from Yamaha, Day Sequerra, and Audio Design Associates.

Q. How soon will it be before we can see HD Radio in portable form?

A. Probably in the next 18 months to two years. We've just made some great engineering strides in this regard that will make the core of our technology smaller and less expensive.

Q. What do you think is the future of radio and why?

A. Digital HD Radio is the future of AM and FM radio. In the same way that color television replaced black-and-white, HD Radio will do the same for analog AM and FM radio. Overall, I think the future of AM and FM radio is exceptionally bright. With 250 million listeners each week, radio today is an integral part of our lives as it has been for nearly 100 years. That said, the industry is at a pivotal point in its evolution as the only major communications medium predominantly using an analog format. Broadcasters know this puts them at a disadvantage with digital competitors, and through HD Radio, they are taking steps to help compete on a more equal footing. As demonstrated with multicasting, radio broadcasters have been quick to leverage digital to offer new programming alternatives, and I have no doubt that they will continue to find fresh and innovative ways to deliver consumers the music, news and information they want -- when they want it, and how they want it -- with a local market perspective that you just can't get from a national service. And when you consider it's all subscription-free, that's a tough package to beat.

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

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