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Digital Radio Receivers – Availability At An Affordable Price

Radio broadcasting world over is one of the most popular means of mass communication, largely owing to its wide coverage, mobility, and affordability. In India, it is carried out in AM bands {Medium Wave (MW) (526-1606 kHz) and Short Wave (SW) (6-22 MHz)} and FM band {VHF band II (88-108 MHz)}.

All India Radio (AIR), the public service broadcaster, used to be the sole radio broadcaster in India. It has a vast network of 670 transmitters – 48 of SW, 139 of MW, and 483 of FM – covering almost 100 percent population of the country but it is mainly on MW. Coverage in FM is only about 50 percent. For radio listeners in the neighbouring and other countries, AIR broadcasts in 27 languages (15 foreign and 12 Indian) for almost 72 hours daily covering over 108 countries. Private participation in radio broadcasting in India was introduced in the year 2000 by allowing private radio stations to broadcast programs with local content on FM. At present over 330 private FM stations are operational but coverage is limited to about 45 percent population only. The government has announced plans to expand their number. The government is also allowing Community Radio Stations (CRS) to focus broadcasts on particular issues relating to the life and activities of the communities. These are low-power FM radio stations. About 200 CRS are operational and their number is being expanded.

Radio signals are largely transmitted in analogue mode. Analogue radio transmission in general, more so in AM bands, suffers in technical quality during transmission. This problem is not much with FM (though it is also an inefficient old technology) but FM is for local coverage only. For large area coverage, transmission in AM bands is the only way out SW to reach radio listeners overseas and in remote inaccessible areas; and MW for large regional coverage.

To overcome the audio quality issues faced with analogue transmissions, digital radio technologies have been developed. Transmission in digital mode also enables the broadcasters to provide a wide range of additional services, such as, multiple audio services from a single transmitter, program associated text data, multilingual text information, electronic program guides (EPG), traffic information, Emergency warning signals, easy tuning by station name etc.

DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale), the latest, most technologically advanced global and open digital radio standard, was adopted by AIR for digital broadcasting in AM bands. A regular digital transmission in SW was started from 16th Jan 2009 from Delhi. At present, 35 MW transmitters of power ranging from 20 kW to 1000 kW (having total power of 7020 kW), are operating in DRM – 2 of these in pure DRM and 33 in simulcast. 25 of these are working in pure DRM daily for one hour.

Transmissions in FM band in India, by AIR omg as well as private broadcasters, are still in analogue mode only. Aware of the advantages of digital radio broadcasting, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the regulator for all the broadcast services too, has recommended to allow private broadcasters to broadcast in the digital white spaces available in the FM band (VHF band II). This recommendation is under consideration of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The Ministry held a meeting on the issue on August 30, 2018. All stakeholders (public and private) were in favor of digital broadcasting in FM band and suggested that the ministry makes public a regulatory policy as soon as possible. Cellphone manufacturers also gave their support provided no additional costs were involved.

A digital receiver is required to receive digital radio broadcasts as analogue receivers cannot decode the digital signals.

One of the welcome features of the current roll-out of DRM digital radio in India has been the early and overwhelming commitment of the car industry. Most of the leading car manufacturers in India have either already incorporated DRM receivers in their cars or are in the process of incorporating them. Hyundai has built-in DRM radios in all its models except one. Maruti Suzuki has also incorporated DRM receivers in 6 models and all their models are soon expected to have built-in DRM receivers. Mahindra has also installed DRM in its TUV model. It is encouraging that the roll-out of DRM equipped cars is growing rapidly. At present the number is understood to have surpassed the 10 lakh mark. Indian car manufacturers are not charging extra from consumers for line-fit DRM radio sets.

In parallel, efforts are being made by a large number of Indian and foreign receiver manufacturers to provide standalone DRM receivers. Communications Systems is the first Indian radio manufacturer to domestically develop and produce a DRM receiver (AV-1401). Inntot Technologies, a young start-up enterprise, has developed a software-based DRM receiver based on a generic processor. This is likely to be much cheaper. GeekSynergy, another start-up company, is also working on the development of a highly affordable DRM receiver.

Gospell Digital Technology located in China has presented a very well-reviewed DRM Receiver, GR216, which is already in production. Gospell is developing a DRM receiver dongle, GR-227 too, which can be plugged in the existing audio systems in the automobiles on USB ports or Aux input to receive DRM digital signals. Titus SDR, a Panamanian based company, has developed a multi-standard and software-based digital radio receiver. Starwaves has also developed a prototype DRM receiver.

Standalone DRM digital efforts remain relatively expensive at present. Like with any new technology higher volumes will bring down the cost of the receivers. AIR may thus offer content with additional audio services, innovative advanced features such as journaline advanced text, emergency warnings, and traffic information so that listeners see value in buying a digital receiver.

An app for DRM digital reception in mobile phones in FM band has been already developed. Demonstrations have been made on the reception of DRM digital signals in the existing mobile phones by plugging a dongle. External dongle would not be required in the new mobile phones; however, the industry wants to see the publicized policy of the government before making the necessary adjustments for working of the app.

Most of the standalone receivers can receive DRM (in addition to analogue) in AM bands; and its software can also be upgraded to receive DRM in FM band. As announced by Director General recently, AIR may start digital radio broadcasting in FM band. Government may also accept TRAI recommendations and announce a roadmap for digital radio broadcasting in FM band by private broadcasters so that the industry (cellphones, automobile, and standalone receiver manufacturers) gets confidence and starts mass production of receivers.

India is now in a leading position worldwide as it is rolling out digital radio nationally using the DRM standard. India is potentially the largest digital radio market in the world. This offers great product export opportunities into countries all over Asia-Pacific and beyond. The Indian electronics industry sees this as a great opportunity not only to meet domestic demand but also export and fulfill the Make in India mission of our Prime Minister.

A large number of countries, such as Russia, South Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan and many more, have started the process of adopting and/or rolling-out DRM for national coverage in MW, as well as FM band. In addition, a huge portion of the world’s population is already covered by DRM transmissions on SW band.

DRM digital radio is displaying showing its superiority, as its features and benefits overtake anything the analogue mode can provide. Using the full DRM standard to digitize the AM and FM bands, all its extra services, is the only way to make it attractive to the Indian listeners, and the whole country engaged on the digital path.

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