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Digitization of radio broadcasting – A way ahead

Trying to ponder over the switchover to digital technology for sound broadcasting, one comes across varied difficulties on account of topographical variations in different parts of the world where radio has significant audience wanting to get the signal without the interruption caused either by poor internet connectivity or power supply. It is sure that radio being simpler is the medium of tomorrow like it was the medium of yesterday. The present has somewhat been impacted by the blitzkreig of satellite video channels and the mushrooming of OTT platforms causing fatigue to the human eye. Anyway, let us get to the point!

One of the oldest methods of radio communication is broadcasting. Ever since Marconi invented radio, broadcasting spread throughout the world and became popular for more than a century. It was analog all through these years. Emergence of digital communication has changed the scenario of broadcasting. The advantages of going digital are many including spectrum efficiency, noise-free transmission, use of less power, versatile data transmission, and so on.  While digitization is completed in almost all means of communication like telephony, satellite, navigation, etc., broadcasting took a back seat until 1990s. Traditional broadcasting has many challenges from non-conventional modes of broadcasting like satellite, cable, and internet-based modes of broadcasting. The availability of wide bandwidth and highspeed data made internet broadcasting possible. Is it a threat to traditional broadcasting? Or an opportunity? In general, we can say that traditional off-air terrestrial broadcasting is supplemented with broadcasting through satellite and through internet-based social media broadcasting which will be an advantage to the broadcasters.

Traditionally a broadcasting set up has following components:

  • Studio systems for content generation.
  • Content aggregation and distribution to the transmitting stations.
  • Broadcasting through terrestrial/satellite/internet modes.

In order to reap the digital dividend, broadcasters across the world are adopting digital technology for content production, distribution, and transmission. While the latter two components of production and distribution are easy to implement, the transmission is a challenging job. This is mainly due to the fact that the end-user is required to change the receiving device for the new technology. There is always a cost involved for the listener to get a new digital radio as the existing analog receiver will become obsolete. This note is aiming the plan and strategy to be followed by India towards the goal of going fully digital.

World scenario
Broadcasters are following different strategies to implement digital broadcasting.  Many countries have set the cut-off year for digital as 2017, but it is being revised and, in all probability, fully digital will be possible only by 2022. Radio broadcasting organizations have already converted or are converting the production facilities and studios into digital. Country-wise details are not available as on now but the progress made is substantial. Whereas for transmission, countries are adopting different technologies. The prominent radio broadcast transmission technologies in operation are:

Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM). This is a worldwide open standard both in AM and FM bands. This consortium has about 120 countries as members and is being implemented/under testing in different parts of the world. Almost all European countries are part of this consortium and is in different stages of implementation.

High-definition radio (HD radio). This technology is developed by Ibiquity Corporation which has about 50 members from the industry mainly from USA.  This is a proprietary technology and is available in both AM and FM modes. The technology is popular in the USA, especially by the users of car radios and is mostly used by US and neighboring countries. This technology is also known as in band on channel (IBOC) technology.

Digital audio broadcasting (DAB). This technology is a European research product and is in L-band. This band is not being utilized in India for broadcasting purpose. This has a band width of 1.5 MHz compared to 9/10 KHz used in AM.  Therefore, this technology is superior as it can carry number of CD quality channels due to high data handling capacity. Almost all car manufacturers in Europe got in built car radios with DAB technology and is very popular. India tested a pilot transmitter at Delhi on experimental basis way back in the year 2001. But the technology being in non-broadcast band, it was not pursued further.

Integrated services digital broadcast (ISDB). This technology is developed by NHK Japan and is an integrated technology for all the modes of broadcasting including TV.  This is being used only by the public service broadcaster, NHK and a few Latin American countries.

Digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) developed by South Korea which is an extension of DAB is also in operation.  As on now this technology is limited to South Korea.

India has adopted the DRM open standard for its AM broadcast through MW and SW transmitters.

Indian scenario
According to FICCI, the radio industry in the year 2016 was worth of Rs 22.7 billion, which has grown over 14 percent compared to year 2015. This is expected to go up to Rs 47.8 billion by 20-21. This will be about 1/8th of the TV entertainment industry which is valued at Rs 394 billion. Radio which was considered as losing its sheen to its sibling TV, has emerged as the powerful medium in the recent past.

FICCI report also suggests the idea of strengthening of all the four pillars of the digitization plans to make the program successful. These four pillars are:

  • Digital technology
  • Receiving devices
  • Government policies
  • Infrastructure

These four pillars are most important to hold the digitization plan together to make it successful. Market forces alone are not sufficient for the success. There has to be a sustained campaign and support from all stakeholders to make digitization plan successful.

An IIT Mumbai study revealed that 27 percent percent of Indian population still listens to radio. This amounts to about 35 lakh of the Indian population, and mostly rural. AIR’s FM expansion and emergence of private broadcasters has resulted in the availability of variety to the radio listeners. Cheaper FM radios and the inclusion of FM chip in mobile phones are the reasons for the resurgence of radio. In order to tap the potential market in the radio industry, it is essential to upgrade the content generating studio installations to full digital systems.

Studios and systems
All India Radio has converted most of the major studio facilities into digital. This includes the recording systems, audio consoles, post production software, and equipment. However, following upgradation is required in the next 5 years to make it fully digital and state of the art.

Second level radio stations like LRS and community radio stations are to be fully digitized. The audio consoles used at most of these places are mono and analog, whereas the transmitters of these stations are FM and capable of stereo broadcasting.

The audio chain from production to transmission to be made fully digital and capable of stereo transmission.

Multi track recording facilities are to be generated at all major studio centers with a view of transmission of 5.1 channels when we convert FM transmitters to digital. Even for marketing the in house produced content we must have multi track recording, especially the classical music and concerts.

All the digital broadcasting solutions have got the data casting provisions. Hence, the studios must be developed to start data broadcasting by inter connecting different sources of data like newsrooms, newspapers, metrological centers, emergency/disaster alert, etc.

Facility to be created at all studio centers to transmit meta-data of the programs. Library of programs needs upgradation to have meta-data integrated into the audio files.

Completion of archiving of remaining old program content which are treasures.

Creation of facilities for internet streaming and social media broadcasting simultaneously with transmissions.

Video streaming along with audio programs
Broadcasting through social media gives enormous potential of streaming video along with audio programs. This can also be used successfully for pre-broadcast awareness and publicity. For this major AIR studios can have basic recording facility especially for classical music and concerts. Basic video cameras and recording and limited editing facility to be created at the station’s music studios.

Distribution systems
Transmitting stations are situated far away from the studio locations due to many reasons.  Some of the reasons are to keep EMI bare minimum to the thickly populated urban areas, to reduce radiation hazards and the requirement of large areas to set up transmitting antenna systems. At times, programs are originated from the capital stations which are to be relayed through local/regional transmitters.  Hence, invariably, a distribution system is employed for transporting/aggregating the content to the transmitting stations. Following modes are utilized for this purpose:

Studio transmitter links (STL) which are also called as VHF and microwave links

ISDN codecs.

  • MLL/DLL managed network
  • Optical fibers
  • Telephone lines
  • Satellite links

Among the above, except the STL and telephone lines all other modes of distribution are digital.  However, many of the AIR stations are still using analogue STLs. In order to maintain digital quality, the entire studio transmitter chain has to be converted to digital. This would eliminate the technical problems of quality deterioration due to repeated analog to digital conversion involved in the chain. For maintaining redundancy to meet out any contingencies all AIR stations must have two sets of digital STLs independent of each other. For this we must go for two different mediums like one digital STL and optical fiber/MLL.

Transmitting technologies
AM Broadcasting through MW/SW covers nearly 99 percent of Indian population. In order to reap the digital dividend, it is necessary to reach the unreached by the digital radio broadcasting. AM mode is the main back bone service of India’s radio broadcasting and it reaches many of the remote areas of the country.  AIR has rolled out an ambitious plan of converting MW/SW mode of broadcasting into digital mode by adopting DRM technology. Being the only open standard and widely accepted by as many as 120 countries, it was the right choice. As on now, 38 transmitters are converted to digital and is broadcasting through simulcast/fully digital modes. However, its potential could not be explored fully due to the non-availability of cheap radio receivers. Usages of this technology has the following major advantages:

Noise free transmission of audio programs.

Facility for transmitting up to four programs through one channel of the transmitter. This is especially helpful for broadcasting multiple languages or services at the same time through the same channel, like news bulletins in English/Hindi at the same time.

Provision for data broadcasting including emergency/disasters warnings.

High spectrum efficiency and release of frequencies by the usage of single frequency networking (SFN).

Reduced power of transmission in digital mode which will save electricity, and the power bill. This will be a big step for going green technologies.

In order to make this technology viable, popular and effective, the following are suggested:

Announce a date of analog cut off and convert all AM transmitters in MW/SW to DRM capable digital transmitters before this cut-off date.

Make a government initiative to propose inclusion of DRM/HD radio-enabled car radios in all the new models of cars which will be produced and marketed in India through a regulation. The additional cost of DRM chip in the car radio would be only about Rs 1000 for a car costing many lakhs. It should also be made compulsory to include digital standards like DRM and HD radio in all the radios/music systems produced/marketed in India. Since these technologies are run by software, a single chip in the receivers can make it possible to receive any mode of digital transmission. This will enable the usage of digital radios by middle class and economically better off population.

To produce enhanced quality of exclusive content to be broadcasted in pure DRM mode to generate an interest among the listeners to cajole them to go for a digital radio.

Since AIR is facing acute shortage of program producers and staff, we may go for buying high quality content of popular interest from media houses and producers.

In order to bring down the cost of digital radios, government may generate an initial demand of about one million receivers through mass purchase for distribution to communities and the economically under privileged sections of the society. Huge volume of demand will bring down the cost of the receivers due to economies of scale as the chips cost come down drastically on huge volumes. If there is a demand of one million radio receivers the cost is expected to come down to Rs 2000. This would amount about Rs 20 crore to the government, which is meager but will turn out to be a game changer in the digital radio broadcasting arena. This method of popularizing was earlier done when FM broadcasting was introduced by AIR.

Shortwave broadcasting
AIR depends on SW broadcasting to cover the hilly terrains and border areas. Though the listenership in SW mode has come down in the recent past, when converted to digital, it will have FM like quality radio reception in far flung areas and across continents.  Strategically the country should continue SW broadcasting in analog mode at least for one more decade as this is the only mode of mass communication which can withstand any nuclear wars, satellite capturing or Internet blockade/cyber crash.

We have number of SW services for overseas broadcast which is known as external services of AIR. Strategically this is the only mode of communication by which the nation can propagate into any country. This is essential for projecting the India’s viewpoints, the arts and culture, the development and even the propaganda during emergency situations like war. We must continue this service in both analog and digital mode till all the target countries are converting in to digital transmitters. Digital SW is as good as FM in quality and is an easy method of transmission. Hence, we must convert all SW transmitters to digital.

It is learned that China is developing its own digital transmission technology, but may not be an open technology. In the event of such a technology which may be exclusive for that country, we may have to set up additional shortwave transmitters in digital mode using the technology they are adopting for coverage of that country. Full conversion of MW/SW transmitters into digital mode can be completed by 2022 which is a reasonable target projected by many of the nations.

FM broadcast
Analog FM broadcast which AIR started in a big way as LRS service became very popular in a short period of time in spite of being a new technology. Introduction of exclusive FM channels as FM Gold and FM Rainbow added color to the analog FM broadcast. Though we started as a mono FM service, much of our FM transmitters are now carrying stereo services. However, the opening up of FM to private operators brought much need boost to this sector.  Availability of cheap FM receivers as low as Rs 50 and in-built receivers in almost all mobiles in the country made FM very popular.  It gives relatively a good quality, noise free program in stereo mode which is a major attraction.

However, the FM broadcast spectrum is only 20 MHz from 88 to 108 MHz, with a channel spacing of 400 KHz. This limits the number of FM channels a city can have.  Therefore, it is necessary to migrate into digital FM in which every channel can have a number of stereo programs in addition to high bit rate data transmission capacity.  Different technology options are, DRM+ and HD radio, which are available in the existing FM band. While DRM+ is in the development and testing stage, the HD radio is fully operational in US and Latin American countries. Plenty of receivers are available in the form of car radios and home radios. However, the technology is proprietary. Considering the availability of receivers and the possibility of including HD radio in future mobiles, this would be a better option.

In order to expand FM services it would be advisable to get out of spectrum hungry analog FM broadcast to digital FM. This will allow the broadcasters to give multiple languages, high quality music including 5.1 surround sound from single transmitter in metropolitan and other big cities. AIR must roll out digital FM in the next 5 years.

Radio broadcast through DTTB
DVBT2 standard is adopted by Doordarsan for digital terrestrial transmission. DD is converting many high-power transmitters into digital. It is possible to have radio transmission through this TV transmitters at the cost of one TV channel. However, TV transmitters are in UHF range and requires radios to receive this frequency. In case of future development of this technology, the FM channels can be additionally transmitted through DVB T2 transmitters.

Social media in broadcasting
This is the new mode of broadcasting which is giving challenges to conventional broadcasting, but at the same time opens out enormous opportunities to broadcasters. Internet penetration in India has exceeded 50 percent of the population and is still growing. The average internet speed in the world is 4.1 Mbps.  With the introduction of IPV4 and IPV6, the average internet speed is likely to go high.  We have 300 million internet mobile phones in the country and is likely to reach 700 million by 2021. The latest industry figures say that 75 percent of the mobile data is consumed by the age group of 15 to 34. Interestingly 75 percent of this data is for watching the videos and listening to music. India, having a huge population in this age group, it is necessary to target this group through the medium of audio and video. This age group watches short duration movies or music. Internet-enabled broadcast services will rule the industry in the years to come.

The music industry’s worth in the year 2016 was Rs 12.20 billion, and is expected to reach Rs 25.4 billion by 2021. It is almost double of the present market. Therefore, AIR must focus on this area of internet enabled broadcasting. All AIR stations must start internet-enabled broadcasting through streaming or social media, in addition to the traditional off-air broadcasting. Almost all social media platform like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., started broadcasting through their mobile apps to the target audience. Media organizations like Netflix and others have started operations world over distributing content. Cloud-based content distribution is the best method for this mode of broadcast to prevent data congestion. Though AIR has started streaming many of the services through internet and social media, we have no decentralized dedicated high band width channels to cater to a large number of audiences. Therefore, we must adopt the following:

Link all AIR stations through a dedicated fiber-based VPN+CDN network for sharing the content.

Hire cloud server services in India and abroad for content distribution through social media.

Develop interface to broadcast all the content going on through social media with high bandwidth.

Create exclusive IT cells at all AIR stations to look after broadcasting through internet and social media.

Tap the market for revenue earning with enriched/archived content including tying up with social media players.

In order to reap the rich digital dividend a concerted effort is required to roll out digital services through all the modes of radio broadcasting. A time frame of 5 years down the line would be ideal and keep December 31, 2022 as the deadline.

Convert all the existing analog transmitters to digital in both AM and FM mode.

Follow a hybrid approach – continue all modes off air broadcasting and adopt internet based streaming and social media.

Government must support in terms of regulation to include digital receivers compulsory in all car radios and other domestic radios including mobiles.

Subsidize/give tax holiday for digital receiver production for a period of 5 years to make the technology popular.

Content will drive the industry, for which we need programmers and producers.

To meet the immediate demand, we need to source it from market. Since our dream of digital India is fructifying fast in different manifestations, a vast part of the world too is over busy in the broadcast sector thinking on reaching the last man through digital disseminating apparatus at no to negligible cost.

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