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Feature: Going Digital - The End of Radio As We Know It (II)

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Radio Stations as ISPs?

Backers of In-Band On-Channel digital audio broadcasting point to the potential of having "value-added services" piggy-backed onto a radio signal. You'll be able to access song information and traffic and weather reports on your new digital radio display, for example.

But Big Broadcasting has much more in store for their soon-to-be-doubled radio channels. It's conceivable that IBOC could actually turn radio stations into internet service providers - a far cry from their original mission as broadcasters.

Here's the scenario: a radio station will run some sort of nominal, canned format, using the least amount of bandwidth possible out of its 430 KHz chunk. The rest of its channel bandwidth will be devoted to people surfing the 'net - like having a cable or DSL modem without the wires.

If it sounds too far-fetched to be true, just take a look the latest Big Thing in digital TV.

 Clear Channel Communications, America's largest radio, concert promotion and outdoor advertising conglomerate (owning more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide), also happens to own 37 television stations around the country. Clear Channel has just unveiled a new service for Web surfers in Cincinnati, Ohio. In Cincinnati, Clear Channel owns WKRC-TV, the local CBS affiliate. WKRC is now broadcasting a digital TV signal.

Clear Channel Wireless' new "Delta V Internet Accelerator" service is, essentially, one-way wireless internet service for the masses. It offers both home and business users 256 Kbps connections for fast downloading - comparable with low-end DSL modems. Users will still need a regular phone line to maintain an "upstream" connection, for things such as web page requests and the sending of email - but download speeds will be radically increased compared to dial-up speeds.

Delta V works like this: a special card is installed in a customer's computer and tuned to WKRC-TV. The card focuses on the part of the DTV signal that contains the data, and ignores the actual sound and picture stream completely. In its marketing literature, Delta V's makes a big deal out of the fact that it does not require a television set to work.

This completely changes what WKRC-TV is broadcasting for - offering wireless broadband Internet access in competition with cable and phone companies. Instead of having to rely solely on advertising as its source of income, the station also now has its own product to market directly to the consumer.

The hope for Delta V is that television stations will build lists of subscribers, charging a monthly fee for wireless internet service. That side of the business sounds a lot more lucrative than shucking ads to pay for sitcoms, does it not?

I do not think it's out of the realm of possibility to put two and two together and expect to see a similar service introduced when digital radio is rolled out. In fact, turning radio stations into wireless ISPs may be a lot more lucrative than turning TV stations into ISPs. Many media conglomerates own more than one radio station in many markets, potentially providing not only more bandwidth for potential ISP customers but a larger geographic service area overall.

The scary thing about all of this is that broadcasting won't be radio's core business anymore, if this is what's really in store for radio. After all, spectrum is spectrum - it doesn't matter where it is on the dial, the ones and zeroes of digital data can be accommodated regardless of the frequency.

We are looking at the potential for a wholesale change in the way the radio spectrum is used - and the potential extinction of a whole form of media in the process, or at best, relegated to window-dressing.