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Europe Dithers Over Digital Radio

Is the continent's digital AM and shortwave system stillborn or still to be born?

3 min read

It’s been a year since Digital Radio Mondiale was supposed to spark a revolution. Shiny new radios would come fitted with DRM technology to receive a new, higher-­quality digital signal for shortwave and AM broadcasting. That in turn would pave the way for all-digital airwaves--first in Europe, and then in Asia, Latin America, and North America.

It never happened. The first DRM receivers were supposed to be on the market in time for last December’s holiday shopping [see photo, "Stocking Stuffer]. But because of unspecified technical glitches--or maybe just cold feet on the part of manufacturers, who worried about whether the technology would truly take off--stores still lack radios. Now, with this year’s holiday season fast approaching, DRM backers are trying to drum up enthusiasm for the technology.

DRM got its start a decade ago in the R&D labs of the United Kingdom’s BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and Deutsche Telekom, and the United States’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Voice of America. The idea was to develop a nonproprietary digital technology for ­terrestrial broadcasting at frequencies of 30 megahertz and below, to supplement the satellite transmission technologies already in place [see sidebar, "Roll Over, Marconi"].

Although analog shortwave signals can travel many thousands of miles, reception is easily disrupted and tends to be spotty. Analog AM fidelity is generally better than that of shortwave, but broadcast reach is much smaller, except at night, when signals bounce off the ionosphere.

Among the advantages of digital broadcasting are its consistency of signal quality and its efficiency. A 50-kilowatt transmitter using DRM can reach Warsaw from London, while an analog transmitter with the same reach would have to be 200 kW, observes the BBC’s John Sykes, a DRM pioneer. Not surprisingly, dozens of major international broadcasters are backing DRM, which also lets them get out of analog shortwave broadcasting without leaving its bandwidth fallow.

”Radio will be digital. Full stop,” says Peter Senger, a longtime R&D man at Deutsche Welle and leader of the international Digital Radio Mondiale consortium.

But for DRM to take hold, listeners will have to go out and buy new radios, and so far that’s put a full stop to DRM. Why would people throw out perfectly good radios and plunk down the equivalent of US $200 to buy supposedly better ones, considering they can already get all the content they want with their existing sets?

Sony Corp. and Blaupunkt, both part of the DRM consortium, show no signs of putting a DRM-compatible radio on the market, and they declined to offer comments for this story. Evidently, for now they’d rather leave the field to more obscure manufacturers, such as Taiwan’s Sangean Electronics and Britain’s Roberts and Morphy Richards. No company has yet offered consumers a DRM car radio.

Still, ”pilot production runs are happening as we speak,” says Dave Hawkins, a business development strategist at RadioScape, in London, which makes the decoding module for DRM receivers. Hawkins is confident that radios will be available for Europe’s Christmas holiday market this year.

There are tense days ahead, though. DRM boosters express confidence that when consumers hear it, they’ll like it. They say that even though DRM’s sound quality will not be like hearing true hi-fi, listeners will appreciate having shortwave and AM stations coming in at near-FM quality. Even more important, perhaps, listeners will be able to get many more stations than before, and if they purchase a well-equipped radio, they will have user-friendly ways of identifying and selecting programs of interest.

But Sangean, Roberts, and Morphy Richards don’t have the marketing clout of a Sony, and rarely does a new technology sell itself.

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