Digital radio might seem inevitable, but for Europe, at least, it seems stuck in an endless chicken-or-egg discussion between OEMs and broadcasters. Brendan McNally investigates.
Even though broadcast radio has, in recent years, lost much of its market share to IP-based and satellite services, the medium itself remains popular with listeners, particularly while they're driving.
Yet, within the radio industry many fear that this popularity can no longer be taken for granted and that, unless a way can be found to redefine and securely reposition broadcast radio within the connected car, broadcast radio risks becoming marginalized and ultimately eliminated.
The solution, many believe, is to transition FM broadcast radio, which is analog, to a digital format and to use it to deliver a broad range of complementary data streams – from automated, language-independent, multi-modal traffic and travel information transmissions to album art.
Europe goes digital, slowly
In Europe, the transition to digital radio is already underway. According to WorldDMB, a global industry forum for digital radio, the standard is well-established in the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland, with household penetration of at least 33% in each of the four countries. Norway, in fact, is the first country in the world on track to complete the transition from FM to digital, in 2017.
Germany launched broadcasting in the DAB+ format in 2011. The Netherlands has national services since September 2013, and France is to launch DAB+ in Paris, Nice and Marseille in June 2014.
The problem is digital radio is not growing fast enough, especially compared with the meteoric rise of IP-based infotainment services. And the support it gets from different European governments is almost always less than full-fledged and, typically, driven by desire to free up the FM broadcasting spectrum for other purposes.
The best thing that could happen would be for European automobile manufacturers to start putting digital radio receivers in all their new cars. But short of an actual, concerted, pan-European push to make DAB and DAB+ the new European broadcast radio standards, European carmakers are reluctant to undertake the necessary investments.
Carmakers balk at the cost
“DAB is probably the future in Europe,” says Derek Williams, general manager for telematics and multimedia product planning at Toyota Motor Europe.“But it's slow to roll out because there isn't any major customer benefit and no compelling reasons for customers to want it.”
He adds that it offers no great improvement in coverage and very little content improvement over FM radio. That said, Toyota offers digital radio to anyone who wants to pay for it. “Because some countries have it, we produce cars that use it, and, therefore, they're available,” Williams says. However, in most countries, customers are unwilling to spend the money.
As a result, much of the responsibility for carrying the digital broadcasting ball forward has fallen onto the shoulders of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and similar professional bodies.
While listeners may no longer differentiate much between different sources of audio content, broadcast radio has several important qualities that differentiate it from Internet-based services.
In the event of natural disasters, Internet-based services can be disrupted, often for days. Broadcast radio is nearly always there, sending out vital information to people who otherwise have no means of getting outside news. It is for this reason alone broadcast radio needs to b preserved, protected and brought into the 21st century, radio advocates believe.
Similarly, they also argue that drivers should not have to be dependent on IP-based infotainment services in order to have access to vital travelers' news and information, something digital broadcast can deliver free of charge and with a near-ubiquitous coverage.
Enter the Euro-Chip
According to the EBU, Germany’s trans-European road network, for example, has 98% digital radio coverage, compared to with 64% to 76% cellular coverage of the A7 motorway between Hamburg and Hannover.
Should a pileup or some other major accident take place within any of these gaps in coverage, drivers who are wholly dependent on IP-based traffic information might suddenly find themselves becoming the latest unfortunate additions to the catastrophe.
This is one of the reasons they argue for having radio-based information services such as TPEG, which was introduced by the EBU in the late 1990s, are so important.
But knowing that OEMs are unlikely to take the initiative of including digital radio receivers in their connected car fitments, the EBU is pushing for a much lower-cost alternative: installing a hybrid, “Euro-Chip,” into mobile phones, tablets and other mobile broadband devices, which would enable seamless integration of IP-based and broadcast radio.
“Our approach is to have a hybrid solution, broadcast and broadband together, to get the benefit out of both technologies by combining them,” says Christian Vogg, head of radio at the EBU.
The term “Euro-Chip” does not refer to an actual electronic chip per se as much as it describes the basic characteristics of chipsets capable of delivering both analog and digital broadcast radio to broadband receivers.
When it comes to TPEG, it allows automatic transmission of travelers' information, such as road conditions, accidents and weather. But it can also be expanded to provide such information as gas prices and parking spot availability. It also can transmit limited imagery, including corporate logos.
In Europe, rules forbid TPEG from being used to transmit commercial information, but in regions unbound by such rules, TPEG could be used to carry whichever commercial content that the driver might permit. In this way, TPEG broadcasts could ultimately be monetized.
The chicken or the egg?
Still, Williams remains unimpressed. If the different European governments can make themselves decide to move together toward digital radio, it would be all the signal that Toyota and the other carmakers need to go ahead and start making digital radio part of their standard fitment.
But until that time comes, they've already done all the need to do, he says. “Left to itself, FM will continue to survive for a good long while,” he says. “The stats we see on Internet radio listening are quite low. As for digital radio, it's there. We delivered it. Customers will buy more of it when there's more to listen to.”
(For more on digital radio, see Telematics and the rise of in-car Internet radio, part I  and Telematics and the rise of in-car Internet radio, part II .)
Brendan McNally is a regular contributor to Telematics Update.
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