CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Best Cyber Monday deals PS5 restock Best Cyber Monday deals under $50 Cyber Monday TV deals Moderna vaccine Second stimulus check Amazon Cyber Monday deals

Tuning in to digital radio

After conquering the den and the living room, digital technology is about to transform the sleepy car stereo.

The future of radio--one of the last analog holdouts in an increasingly digital world--is coming into view in the United Kingdom.

The British Broadcasting Corp. has been busy rolling out new digital radio channels under a standard known as Eureka 147. It's already possible to retrieve Web pages using some of these services, although download speeds can leave users frustrated.

The United Kingdom also is home to Modular Technology, a computer-components maker that offers consumers a way to pull broadcasts from the airwaves and play them on their PCs. The company recently added a radio receiver card to its popular line of PC TV tuners, throwing a spotlight on the coming digitization of the AM and FM bands in Europe and across the globe.

Taken together, Modular Technology's DAB digital radio card and the BBC's digital programming let users schedule radio recordings with the help of electronic program guides--essentially offering the same sort of controversial features found in digital video recorders like TiVo and ReplayTV, which have thrown TV broadcasters into a frenzy.

Such capabilities are now poised to transform the lowly AM/FM radio from a cheap, static-prone receiver into a sophisticated media-processing device bolstered by memory, a hard drive, a screen for displaying images, and a graphical interface--in short, into a stubby, road-ready computer just shy of your average desktop PC.

If digital radio products and services continue to pick up momentum, which seems likely, the airwaves could one day become a giant file server, pouring out MP3s and other data to a mobile audience.

A representative from Modular Technology did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for an interview. Others in the industry, however, say the future will see much smarter and feature-rich receivers, particularly in the increasingly high-end world of car radios.

"There is no question in my mind that the industry is moving aggressively into this market," said Larry Pesce, vice president of product management and strategic planning at U.S.-based digital satellite radio provider Sirius Satellite Radio.

Hang the DJ
Traditional radio stations are scrambling to keep up with digital formats that have handed consumers unprecedented control over their music thanks to the Internet and portable MP3 players. Local advertising-based radio is under attack from new subscription services and from online radio broadcasts that have increasingly let listeners choose the music they hear and escape rigid programming schedules.

Digital competitors to local AM and FM radio have spent billions on risky satellite bets that aim to attract subscribers by providing national coverage, higher quality audio and advertising-free programming. Sirius and XM Satellite Radio have launched in the United States with the backing of deep-pocket investors, although their massive debt levels have left serious doubts about their ability to survive until they can sign up enough subscribers to offset their costs.

Digital avenues are opening up on several fronts, however, so even if satellite radio crashes and burns, traditional radio is almost certain to continue the march toward 0s and 1s.

In a major step toward digital radio adoption, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission earlier this month approved digital broadcasts using proprietary technology created by Columbia, Md.-based iBiquity, known generically as IBOC but branded as HD Radio by the company.

Other hints of the future can be seen in a wave of processing chips and radio components that let consumers receive, copy and store MP3 and other file formats from broadcasts over the radio spectrum. Coupled with fledgling standards for local digital radio transmissions, such devices herald the first major overhaul of radio since the arrival of the FM band in the 1940s.

As a result, in-car listeners could soon have access to song and artist information delivered to an LED (light-emitting diode) display, recording, storage and playback functions, on-demand programming, and the ability to skip back to the beginning of a song that they tuned in to midway through. Other uses beyond traditional radio programming are also on the drawing board, for example, using radio bandwidth to download updates for navigational and other digital car systems.

Down the road, broadcasters are predicting the arrival of full two-way communication on the FM dial, according to Jeff Jury, co-chief operating officer of iBiquity. New radio devices "will include not just the ability to store and replay content, but interactive features that could allow listeners to purchase music downloads," he said.

A clear signal
Digital radio has the enthusiastic backing of governments and broadcasters as well as consumer-electronics manufacturers and chipmakers that hope to fuel consumer demand for new products. Consumer-electronics maker Kenwood, for one, has pledged to begin producing HD Radio-compatible receivers by the first quarter of 2003.

Car manufacturers, meanwhile, are lining up to offer dealer and factory installations of satellite-ready and other digitally enhanced radios. Ford Motor will offer satellite radios in some vehicle models by the first quarter of next year, with other major car manufacturers coming onboard at about the same time or shortly afterward.

Texas Instruments, which makes digital radio processing chips found in products from both iBiquity and Modular Technology, predicts sales of digital radios could make up 30 percent of the market by 2010. At TI's current price of $40 a chipset, that's about $1 billion in revenue for the silicon alone, although prices will almost certainly drop over the next few years with improvements and competition.

Adding digital transmitters to all of the 10,000 estimated radio stations in the United States could cost up to $10 billion, iBiquity estimates.

Although movement on the standards front has opened the door to broad consumer adoption, declining digital radio processor prices have in fact provided the primary push for the technology.

Digital radio proposals have been on the boards since the late 1980s but languished because the chips for crunching the data were either too inefficient or too costly for mass consumer products.

"It's only been in the past few years that those processors have become available on the receiver end," said John Gardner, marketing manager for digital radio at TI. "That's why we've seen digital radio come to a head now. The standards approval is somewhat coincidental."

Other chipmakers in the digital radio market include Motorola and Philips, both of which make processors that convert traditional analog broadcasts to digital formats at the receiver. These chips offer some digital enhancements to traditional radio without requiring broadcasters to convert to digital transmitters.

Such chips have been available for a while but could get a new push thanks to higher visibility of digital radio from iBiquity and broadcasters as they release digital services. That could put powerful new digital features in the hands of consumers long before U.S. broadcasters get around to upgrading their transmitters, a process that could take up to 10 years, according to iBiquity.

Some examples are already finding their way onto the market in Asia.

Earlier this month, at the Korean Electronics Show, consumer-electronics giant Samsung demonstrated a new service allowing consumers to stream music files stored on a cell phone over a Bluetooth wireless connection to a radio receiver using Motorola's Symphony digital radio chipset.

The demonstration showed that a "two-way interactive channel is possible on the radio," said John Hansen, manager of marketing driver information systems at Motorola.

Less futuristically, Symphony helps extend the range of analog broadcasts, using software-filtering techniques to clean up static and hisses.

Celestial jukebox?
Although digital upgrades tout superior audio quality, it's the ability to piggyback data across the FM spectrum that could shake up the industry.

So-called data casting is already available to analog radio broadcasters through subcarriers, which can currently deliver data at a rate of about 1.5kbps. That's sufficient to display a radio station ID and song and artist information on an LED screen, but little else.

Enhancements through hybrid digital-analog upgrades planned by iBiquity could provide up to 160kbps throughput, leaving about 64kbps of bandwidth for data on top of the primary audio component. A pure digital channel, meanwhile, would offer bandwidth of up to 300kbps, according to Motorola's Hansen.

Norm Miller, president of subcarrier provider Digital Radio Express, said data casting has been viable in theory for years at minimal expense. Adding subcarrier data transmission capabilities to current radio transmitters would cost less than $1,000, he said, but it has not gained widespread adoption because of a lack of content.

"The key question is, 'What do you do with 64kbps?'" he said. "If you believe the demand for data is arriving, then this begins to look promising. As navigation systems in cars proliferate, for example, just updating the system brings a lot of value."

Miller said radio data casting will likely remain a one-way system for the foreseeable future but said its low cost could make it an attractive vehicle.

"This is the lowest cost-per-bit delivery system around," Miller said.

TI's Gardner said two-way interactivity over radio spectrum is still some way off. But he said the transformation of the sleepy AM/FM receiver is already well under way, posing far-reaching questions about the direction of the radio industry.

"Radio has long been an important promoter for the record labels," Gardner said. "It's an interesting question what happens when they start to compete with interactivity and on-demand programming."

The Recording Industry Association of America, the main lobby group for the music labels in the United States, did not provide a representative to comment on digital radio issues by the time this article was published.

Digital conversion will put radio under the purview of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a controversial 1998 law that some believe has greatly expanded the powers of copyright holders.

While digital radio broadcasting over the Internet has raised thorny questions over royalty rates for Webcasters, among other things, at least one legal expert who has represented the radio industry in copyright disputes said there would be no significant changes between over-the-air analog and digital broadcasts. The status of making personal digital recordings of radio broadcasts remains unclear, however.

Despite potential legal complications, iBiquity's Jury said that the industry has no other choice but to make the digital leap.

"It's hard to say how all of this will play out," Jury said. "Consumers will have more interactive opportunities. But we're coming at this from the point of view of leveling the playing field. Radio doesn't want to be left as the last of the analog technologies."