New York The U.S. digital radio market is far from settled. The merger of rival satellite services Sirius and XM is still pending, iPod and MP3 players are proliferating, and Internet radio is fast becoming a viable option. Now iBiquity, a developer of free-over-the-air terrestrial digital radio broadcast systems, is pushing HD Radio.
IBiquity is neither content owner nor broadcaster; rather, its technology lets radio stations simulcast compressed digital audio and traditional analog audio without shifting to new frequency bands. As of today, according to iBiquity, 1,500 HD Radio stations are on the air, with 700 offering new FM multicast channels exclusively to HD Radio listeners, subscription-free.
IBiquity hopes to gain exposure for the concept at the Consumer Electronics Show, which opens Jan. 7 in Las Vegas. The company and its partners will demonstrate new HD Radio features at CES, including an "iTunes tagging" offering that it says will make it easier to purchase music, while unveiling chips and reference designs developed to let HD Radio go mobile in portable devices as well as car radio.
Among the new IC offerings is Samsung's HD Radio chip set, consisting of an RF-IF peripheral processor and a baseband processor and billed as the first low-power solution for portable HD Radio. Not to be outdone, fabless chip company SiPort (Santa Clara, Calif.) will demonstrate a single-chip HD Radio solution at CES that integrates the RF, baseband, memory, ADC and PLL. SiPort's chip, now in production-silicon form, will show up in commercial portable products by the third quarter, Sid Agrawal, SiPort's CEO, told EE Times.
IBiquity, which has been a CES regular for the past several years, believes the HD Radio infrastructure is finally in place to propel terrestrial digital radio's market penetration. A year ago, there were only 20 unique HD Radio products on the market, most notably a JVC car radio that sold for about $199. "Today, we have more than 60 unique HD Radio receivers, whose prices start as low as $99 and [scale] upward to $199," said Robert Struble, president and CEO of iBiquity. The company claims that HD Radio coverage reaches 80 percent of the population.
For their part, digital satellite radio services have been growing their subscription base: Sirius reported 7.7 million subscribers as of September, and XM touts nearly 8.6 million subscribers. But the satellite services continue to rack up financial losses, largely as a result of expensive deals to sign up high-end talent (such as Oprah Winfrey, Bob Dylan and Major League Baseball on XM, and Howard Stern and the National Football League games on Sirius).
Despite its latecomer status, HD Radio has potential, thanks to its free-over-the-air broadcast business model. HD technology enables multicast channels of programming, broadcast over a single FM frequency, which increases listener choice. The format has already garnered commitments from radio stations that produce or own content.
But not everyone is ready to predict that terrestrial digital radio can compete effectively in the U.S. market against satellite digital radio.
"HD Radio does not have commercial-free content or breadth of coverage like satellite radio," said Frank Dickson, chief research officer at MultiMedia Intelligence. "You also have to separate the satellite radio companies from the transmission medium."
The satellite radio players say that they are content aggregators first, distributors second. "This means they will license to Internet, mobile or any other distribution [medium]," Dickson said. "They already do Internet radio as part of the satellite subscription package. Content is king, so he who controls Howard Stern and Opera Winfrey has a multinetwork opportunity."
Indeed, iBiquity acknowledges it is neither content owner nor broadcaster. "We offer a patent portfolio, know-how and brand to chip vendors, receiver manufacturers, transmitter companies and broadcasters," explained Gene Parella, vice president of engineering at the company.