2017 came and went with no great movement in the HD Radio space. According to FCC records, fewer than 2,000 FM stations have received authorization to broadcast in HD, which represents an adoption rate of 15% – a number that has not changed significantly during this decade.
On the AM side, although some 240 stations (5%) are authorized to broadcast in HD, this curated list shows that about half of them have abandoned the protocol. Penetration of HD receivers into the automotive space remains at just under half of all new cars sold in the United States and there’s still no meaningful market for non-automative portable receivers.
Yet the broadcast industry would rather you believe that HD is thriving. A new “e-book” from the folks at Radio World, New Directions for HD Radio, contains useful information about ways to optimize the system, including making sure that the analog and digital signals are properly time-aligned, the necessity of seamless audio processing across the airchain, and National Association of Broadcasters effort to standardize the broadcast of metadata on HD signals. One would think those core operational principles would’ve been hammered out nearly twenty years ago when the technology was first authorized for deployment, but it was more important to the industry to make a digital beachhead on the airwaves than it was to deploy something that worked out of the box.
But a careful read of the e-book suggests that broadcasters don’t have the strongest expectations for the future of HD Radio as a prime driver of the industry. David Layer, the vice president of advanced engineering at the NAB, revealed that the trade group plans to “to do some limited all-digital FM field testing” this year, though the test-stations aren’t identified. Yet he does “not foresee FCC authorization of all-digital services in the near future simply because the penetration of HD Radio receivers in the marketplace has not yet reached the level where it would make sense for the broadcast industry to start transitioning from hybrid digital (combined analog/HD signal) to all-digital.”
David Day, president of audio-conditioner Orban Labs, notes that the in-car listening experience – the only meaningful vector for HD technology – is still hamstrung by stations broadcasting misaligned analog/HD signals: “[T]he last time I took a look at a market with one of our. . .monitors, about 40 percent of the FM stations were well outside of being in good. . .time alignment. It’s a real problem for the automotive industry with consumer complaints – the dealer fix is to lock the car HD Radios into ‘analog only’ mode to resolve it, and that’s bad for broadcasters.”
Paul Brenner, the president of NextRadio/TagStation (an Emmis Communications company) and chief of the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium (which markets HD data capacity for the provision of traffic information), would like to see broadcasters think beyond “simplistic things like consistent radio tuner dashboard experience and solve for greater challenges.” Two of those are “find[ing] ways to make the technology cheaper for broadcasters and automakers,” and enticing broadcasters to “reinvest in [HD] technology. Versions have improved. Equipment has aged, Given the amount of time it has taken to launch in-car solutions both versions and equipment need reinvestment across all markets.”
This might be a tough sell to early adopters who have since soured on HD’s fairly peripheral return-on-investment – especially since many of those adopters were the nation’s largest radio conglomerates, who are now in a much more financially precarious position than they were at HD’s launch and don’t have the budgets for new capital expenditures. And Brenner doesn’t seem to think think the technology will move beyond the car: “I am not aware of any uptake for HD Radio in mobile handset or home devices.”
What about HD’s expansion into Canada and Mexico? Brenner doesn’t mention our southern neighbor, but notes that Canada’s first attempt at embracing HD “eventually ended with no receiver adoption.” Furthermore, Canadians “are more sensitive to [HD] interference and FM complaints. At any sign of either, their action is [to] shut down HD until the problem is solved, versus the U.S. where you would typically see a reduction in power until solved as opposed to shutoff. . . .Broadcaster caution will continue to be the governor on adoption.”
Despite this, Brenner is thinking of a future where analog radio no longer exists, especially in light of newer audio-delivery competitors which have squeezed radio’s position of primacy for on-the-go listening. “Just to geek out for a minute, what if a smartphone or a car no longer had any analog capability of willingness to build for interference issues? What will we have done to prepare for that argument and justify the work and investment to keep broadcast radio as an option? There are things we must be doing right now to prepare for that discussion; and the discussion needs to be now.”
HD Radio’s proprietor,
iBiquity DTS Xperi Corporation, announced at last month’s Consumer Electronic Show that it has developed a “Connected Radio” platform which combines FM/HD broadcasts with RadioDNS, a European-developed system that allows compatible receivers to switch between a station’s over-the-air signal and its internet-stream depending on the quality of reception.
The company expects the system will be “commercially available” in the second half of this year, but it still remains to be seen how many automakers and receiver manufacturers are lining up to implement it. It also continues a trend seen throughout HD’s history of acquiring or licensing complementary features to the system, as opposed to developing from scratch. This tracks well with Xperi’s own business model, which is to be a repository of intellectual property that can be leveraged/licensed for profit. In any case, the big news is not that HD is in the mix, but that Xperi expects radio listening of the future to not be wholly (or even largely) reliant on over-the-air standalone signals.
That said, HD Radio’s regulatory potential just got a huge boost with the FCC’s appointment of Albert Shuldiner as the new chief of the Media Bureau’s Audio Division – the place where all major radio policy gets made. Shuldiner spent a decade and a half as iBiquity Digital Corporation’s lead counsel, tasked with shepherding HD techology through the regulatory approval process. He was also instrumental in iBiquity’s later sale to DTS, and has legal-moonlighted for the NAB after leaving that company. At the very least, we can expect little FCC resistance to, and perhaps even open embracement of, any demands that Xperi or the NAB make of the agency in its continuing quest to find relevance for HD Radio.
Not surprisingly, broadcasters are excited about a Shuldiner era at the Audio Division. Glynn Walden, who was instrumental in developing the HD Radio standard, thinks Shuldiner “will be a big supporter of [FCC] Chairman [Ajit] Pai’s initiatives to reduce unnecessary burdens on broadcasters and modernize the FCC.” The NAB’s David Layer calls Shuldiner “well-positioned to understand what radio needs in the 21st century and will fairly and honestly deal with broadcasters.” He adds that anybody who might look askance at Shuldiner’s appointment are “uninformed people who aren’t fortunate enough to know Al.”