FM gets strong reception at CES

The humble broadcasting technology, which ceased being a novelty around the time of Woodstock, re-emerges in several new and potentially significant permutations.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
3 min read
LAS VEGAS--The hot new technology at the Consumer Electronics Show this year is--FM radio?

Yup, the humble broadcasting technology, which ceased being a novelty around the time of Woodstock, has re-emerged in several new and potentially significant permutations.

Unused portions of the FM radio spectrum are Microsoft's transmission medium of choice for Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), the pervasive-data concept the software giant is showing off in the form of gee-whiz wristwatches.

SPOT watches, to begin appearing on store shelves late this year from manufacturers such as Fossil and Citizen, will download sports scores, weather reports and other simple data types selected by the consumer. Data will be beamed by service providers, who will lease carrier capacity from existing FM broadcasters, and watches will automatically retrieve the signals using FM chips built into the watches. Microsoft is calling the technology DirectBand.

Roger Gulrajani, Microsoft's director of marketing for SPOT, said the software giant looked at a number of wireless technologies before settling on FM. "It was really a matter of size and battery life," he said. "When we looked at Wi-Fi, there was just no way we could fit that into a watch...The FM spectrum turned out to be this great, underutilized asset."

FM has the advantage of using infrastructure that's already built and can easily handle the type of tiny, continuous data downloads DirectBand will require. Instead of retrieving information on demand, SPOT devices will automatically download updated data so that fresh weather reports or news updates are displayed with one click.

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"The bandwidth is pretty transparent," Gulrajni said. "To the user, it's blazingly fast, because the weather report is right there when they want to look at it."

A few issues remain to be worked out, such as exactly who will pay for and provide services using the DirectBand network that Microsoft is building. Makers of SPOT devices may provide their own proprietary services, and Microsoft might offer DirectBand services through its MSN Internet. Costs to the consumer are expected to be minimal.

Brian Halla, CEO of National Semiconductor, the chipmaker working with Microsoft to create the components for SPOT devices, says the costs for components and services are low enough that watches and other SPOT items will become impulse buys in a few years.

"The watches will be shrink-wrapped in 7-Eleven next to the Altoids, and people will get them for $20 with service," he said.

National is working on designs for several other SPOT devices, including a DirectBand receiver that would fit into the SecureDigital memory slot on handheld computers.

"FM is a great way to go for this kind of connectivity," Halla said. "You get much better access, and most of the network is already there."

FM radio was also big news in the automotive pavilion at CES, where Ibiquity Digital was showing off the first car and home receivers to tap into the digital FM spectrum the company is powering.

Radio stations will be able to broadcast digital signals starting this year, using Ibiquity-developed technology that recently received FCC approval, much as television broadcasters have slowly begun offering digital HDTV broadcasts.

The difference is that radio broadcasters will need to spend only about $80,000 for the equipment needed to go digital, compared with the millions a TV station must spend to switch. As a result, Ibiquity CEO Robert Struble expects much faster pickup for digital radio, which offers CD-quality sound and room for a host of ancillary services, such as readouts that offer detailed info on what you are listening to and options for buying CDs by the artist.

"Broadcasters are really picking up on this, because it's a small investment, and there's a real payoff," Struble said. "The biggest challenge for radio is the growing number of distractions people have--CDs, cell phones, all sorts of digital devices for the car--and this gives people more reasons to pay attention to radio."

Ibiquity, which licenses technology to makers of broadcast and receiver equipment, expects that the 300 stations covering two-thirds of the United States will be broadcasting in digital by the end of this year. The first digital radio car receivers will go on sale in the second quarter of this year, with home units to follow.