PARIS " While digital audio broadcast has thus far had little impact on England's cars, it appears to be capturing that nation's hearth.
Tuning in to vintage comedies and re-run dramas in their kitchens, little old ladies and baby boomers contradict the conventional wisdom " indeed, the near unanimous view of the engineering community " that car radios would become the killer app to catapult digital audio broadcast to success.
Instead, cost considerations, clear reception and specialized programming are creating an audience for digital audio broadcast (DAB) in the cozier confines of the home.
In sum, "guaranteed, interference-free quality" and a "choice" of programming are the reasons listeners are tuning in.
After years of struggle since its market introduction in 1998, Europe's terrestrial digital radio"based on the Eureka 147 system developed by an international consortium"is evolving from niche product to mass consumer item. Digital audio broadcast radio receiver sales in the U.K. alone this year are projected at a million units.
Fledgling digital radio broadcast operators in the United States " whether XM Satellite Radio, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. or iBiquity Digital Corp. " all continue to focus on penetrating the automotive market, paying little attention to radio listeners at home. But the U.K's kitchen trend suggests that U.S. digital broadcasters might be aiming their signals at the wrong antennas.
One of the original design goals for the Eureka 147 system " and for that matter, any other satellite or terrestrial digital radio specifications developed in the United States " was to assure that the new spec could handle the challenge of receiving signals in a fast-moving vehicle while coping with complex echoes and signal-fading conditions. "We all thought the mobility of this technology was the breakthrough," said Rebecca Dorta, project director of the World DAB Project Office based in London.
But in reality, she notes, "a majority of people listen to the radio at home." In the U.K., 45 percent of listeners are at home, Dorta said, but only 14 percent in automobiles.
Mandy Green, spokesperson for the Digital Radio Development Bureau, a trade body funded by the BBC and commercial radio multiplex operators to promote digital audio broadcasting in the U.K., acknowledged that less than 5 percent of the digital receivers sold so far in the U.K. were car radios. "It's a very insignificant number."
Europeans, of course, did their level best to crack the car radio market with Eureka 147. But the digital car audio market had "a bumpy start," said Andrew Moloney, marketing manager of receivers at RadioScape, a U.K.-based software-defined radio technology company.
RadioScape, which is designing a family of DAB/FM modules using a Texas Instruments DSP, is entering the car audio market this coming week after years of developing and marketing cost-effective digital broadcast software/hardware solutions for kitchen radios and radio clock alarms.
But Moloney takes no credit for his company's foresight. RadioScape decided to head for the kitchen rather than car audio simply because the company was too small to pursue more than one market segment at a time. With 20/20 hindsight, many in digital audio broadcast can explain that the car radio market is the most difficult place to start building a broad base of digital radio listeners and a volume digital radio receiver market. First, there's the long process of convincing carmakers to include digital radio as a line-fit option. The after-sale market for digital radio receivers in cars is equally difficult, since it means installing not just a new receiver but a new antenna as well. Moreover, it's not easy to get a car salesman excited about digital radio when all he wants to do is sell a car.
The car radio market is also complicated by the technology of radio antennas, RadioScape's Moloney said. A high-quality antenna used for FM car radios often comes with its own amplifier to enhance FM signal reception. Some of those temperamental antennas, it turned out, "were trashing the DAB signals " they saw digital signals as noise," Moloney explained. To resolve the issue for car audio suppliers, a RadioScape DAB/FM receiver module launching this week carries a special provision to address the amplifier problem.
The high cost of car radios is another problem, notes the World DAB Project's Dorta. A DAB kitchen radio today costs under 100 euros (about $124), she said, while the high spec'd DAB car audio, including its fitting cost, is about 420 euros (about $520). DAB user Silver, although he has a car and drives it often, does not have a DAB car radio. "I can't justify the cost," he said. "Maybe when I buy my next car."