Curious as it may seem, radio companies looking forward to the consumer launch of digital radio are calling for the system to reduce, rather than enhance, its capacity to carry conventional radio stations.
At issue is the ten per cent limit on the data transmission capacity which can be dedicated to developing non-audio services by operators of multiplexes on the new platform.
Last month, the Radio Authority confirmed its timetable for the roll-out of digital radio licences, which will see a dozen or more local commercial radio licences advertised on the digital format across most of Britain’s major population centres.
But the success of the digital radio format will be driven as much by the consumer appeal of new data services by the expansion in the number of niche radio stations it offers.
And the consensus among Britain’s commercial radio companies appears to be that this ten per cent limit must be increased – even doubled – for the platform to offer a meaningful range of services which will convince punters to switch from analogue reception.
The Radio Authority’s announcement a fortnight ago (November 25) introduced some flexibility in the ten per cent limit on data services – allowing digital radio broadcasters to aggregate the limit over 24 hours. Nevertheless, the limit remains.
Paul Brown, director of the Commercial Radio Companies Association, says: “We’ve asked the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, Chris Smith, to raise the ceiling of the data carrying capacity of digital radio – as the transmission of these services could have commercial implications for the success of the platform.”
But what will these data services be? Ideas being considered include traffic and news information, and a range of delivery systems for text and pictures aimed at both in-car and home-based receivers.
Much industry attention has been focused on what data services may be sold at a premium to embattled sales reps motoring around the M25.
But both Brown and Quentin Howard, group technical director at GWR, point to digital radio services delivered through the PC as an important early market to drive the platform.
Digital radio computer cards, easily installed into home PCs, will probably sell initially for about 100, says Brown. Such cards would be competitively priced compared with standalone receivers, and offer the chance to deliver Web page-style graphics and text to the PC screen alongside a wide range of conventional radio services.
The appeal of such schemes to the UK’s growing army of Internet surfers is obvious. While flitting between radio stations, surfers could theoretically also be browsing news services, downloading information and pictures on sports fixtures or music concerts, without paying the telephony costs normally associated with browsing the Web itself.
A variety of regularly updated “alerting” services could be offered to PC owners, offering opportunities for screen-based banner ads.
Surfers would benefit from being able to freely access and download Web-style content without incurring any telephony costs, until they opted to interact with a publisher’s or advertiser’s Website by logging on to the Internet.
According to Howard, who is pushing for a doubling in the ten per cent limit: “There are still a lot of unanswered questions about data services, but we think it’s important for digital radio to offer more than simply better quality audio. Early digital radio listeners are probably more likely to be using PCs than mainstream radio receivers, and regulations must allow for digital to offer a new kind of radio.”
Doug McCallum, head of new media at Capital Radio, is more cautious about the role which might be played by PC receivers in developing consumer demand for digital radio listeners.
He believes the growth of in-car reception will skew the exploitation of data transmission by digital radio towards traffic information and other in-car applications, which are less obviously exploitable by mainstream advertisers.
But the main “banana skin” hampering the development of Web-style services through digital radio is not so much the data transmission limit, says McCallum. Rather it is the strict divorce under cur rent regulation between the content of data services and digital radio programming.
“The data limit can’t, as the law stands, be used for commercial purposes related to programming it may accompany,” says McCallum. “But what else are we going to do with it?
“We might be able to enhance music-based programming by the transmission of lyrics, pictures, and other text-based information about the artist.
“But as things stand you cannot attach any advertising or merchandising information about where you can buy a CD or concert ticket.”
The fate of digital radio, then, lies in the hands of Chris Smith. Without his intervention to further relax rules on the regulation of digital radio, many in the radio industry predict the platform will flounder.