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Digital radio services by AIR – Popularization

All India Radio (AIR) has adopted the Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) standard for digital terrestrial radio broadcasting medium wave (MW) and short wave (SW) bands.

35 MW transmitters of AIR, of power ranging from 20 kW to 1000 kW, are operating in DRM – two of these in pure DRM and 33 in simulcast. 25 of these are working in pure DRM daily for one hour. Services are in operation for the last about 5 years, but still digital service is not very popular and standalone DRM digital receivers are not available at affordable prices.

World over, radio is driven by listening in cars. Good news is that over 20 lakh cars with line-fit DRM radio support are on the roads of India today, as four leading automotive manufacturers – Maruti/Suzuki, Hyundai, Mahindra, and MG Motors – are rolling out cars with built-in DRM receivers. Most of the other leading car manufacturers are in the process of incorporating them, but are watching demand first.

The increase has been spectacular in comparison with similar digital-radio rollouts in other established markets in the world. Indian listeners benefit already from the domestic car industry’s joint effort to provide the in-car DRM functionality as a line-fit receiver option for new models without any charge to the consumers. In comparison, other digital radio markets elsewhere in the world have taken decades to reach this level of commitment. In these markets, car manufacturers expect the buyers to pay extra if they want to enjoy digital radio.

Development and production of standalone DRM receivers is also being taken up fast by Indian as well as foreign companies. Made in India AVION DRM receivers are already available. The DRM receiver prototype by Inntot, another India company, is ready and the company is looking for partners for starting large-scale production.

Foreign companies – Gospell and Starwaves – have come out with a number of models of standalone DRM receivers
Cambridge Consultants have just unveiled the prototype of a low-cost DRM receiver, which uses parts costing about `700 only.

From the successful implementation of digital radio in many parts of the world, several determining factors play their role in building demand for digital radios. The principal challenge lies in making commercial digital receivers available in significant volumes.

Consumers need to be initially made aware that exciting new services are on-air, and then be told how they can receive them. As depicted in the diagram below, this is always a dilemma which can be successfully tackled through the involvement of all the stakeholders.

As regards affordable prices for standalone DRM receivers, initially the market price is bound to be high as the demand is low and manufacturers also want to recover some of their significant R&D investment. The prices will certainly go down when demand picks up, as seen in the case of other electronic products like mobile phones, LCD TVs, etc.

Recently, a few initiatives have been taken by Prasar Bharati (PB)/AIR to popularize the DRM digital services, and private broadcasters have also shown interest in going digital and also in using the AIR MW digital network.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the regulator also for the broadcasting sector, has already made recommendation that private FM broadcasters may be allowed to broadcast in digital. As the DRM standard works in all the broadcast bands, most of the DRM desktop receivers available today or in development are already prepared for DRM in the FM band.

Several of them have demonstrated their working in all the broadcast bands, including FM band. The designers/manufacturers of DRM receivers are thus eagerly waiting for the official policy announcements to finalize the digital FM support in their DRM receiver models. Use of DRM in FM band by AIR and private broadcasters in India would motivate them further to incorporate DRM FM facility in the receivers being produced/designed by them.

DRM standard can be supported natively on all mobile phones, based on the already available tuners for analogue FM reception. No additional hardware and, therefore, no additional design or component cost is required to enable DRM digital FM support on those phones. The DRM App for mobile phones has already been developed and demonstrated by a number of organizations including Fraunhofer IIS and Inntot Technologies.

Only the mobile phone manufacturers need to provide access of the base band digital output. The mobile phone industry is also expecting a clear policy announcement for the country to start incorporating this functionality in future phone models. For legacy phone models, external FM front-end dongles have been developed. These dongles along with the already-developed DRM radio app can be used to receive full DRM FM functions. This has been demonstrated successfully by a number of developers.

The DRM Consortium has been organizing events, workshops, and open houses on DRM. A stakeholders’ group has also been constituted which has met five times. From the deliberations, the following suggestions have emerged to popularize DRM digital services by AIR so that manufacturers and distributors are ready with the DRM receivers and radio listeners see the benefit in investing in a digital radio receiver.

Involvement of all stakeholders. The I&B ministry, PB, AIR and private broadcasters, TRAI, and retailers – should be on-board and involved; and there should be close cooperation and coordination among stakeholders, one for each major launch task.

Full digital services. DRM digital radio enables to broadcast up to three audio services, along with Journaline multimedia service and other value-added services, from a single digital transmitter.

Audio services. Provide variety of audio services, preferably which are otherwise not available. One of the audio channels can be used as sports channel as the same does not exist on radio. Time to private FM broadcasters can be allowed on AIR MW digital network.

Text services. Provide text information, such as, transmission schedule, station details, station’s logo, who’s who at a station, how to advertise on the station, etc., in multiple Indian languages.

Emergency warnings. Consider carrying emergency warnings, which DRM digital radio is capable of and has been tested by AIR in collaboration with National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Communicate clear and consistent information to public. Inform radio listeners about the services and the areas in which these will be available by sharing coverage maps for the digital services of each transmitter. The expected number of people, who would be able to receive DRM digital services from every DRM transmitter, also may be provided so that standalone receiver manufacturers and retailers can plan for manufacturing/storing DRM receivers and car manufacturers/retailers can plan their marketing strategy.

Announce launch date of pure digital DRM services for public market launch only after all technical preparations have been done, content is ready, and receivers are available.

Increase the time of pure digital transmissions with gradual switch-off of analogue transmissions.

Digitize FM band, too, by using DRM standard.

The deployment of DRM in the MW/SW bands by AIR has been completed on technical level. By its roll-out considering the above suggestions and extension to the FM band, India will be in a unique position to lead the global roll-out of a new technology.

This is why the Indian receiver and chipset industry has invested hugely in DRM technology, and is in a worldwide leading position today to fulfill the mission Make in India of the Prime Minister, looking toward meeting the huge domestic demand and ready for massive exports.

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