There’s been an interesting story playing itself out over the last month involving a company’s claims of discovering a way to dramatically improve reception of HD Radio signals.
Florida-based DigitalPower Radio announced in late March that it has developed a computational method that allows radio receivers a stronger lock on AM- and FM-HD signals, especially in areas where there might be analog-to-digital interference. Challenging conditions such as these have been detrimental to the robustness of HD signals more generally, for which the (FM) power increase implemented by some stations a couple of years ago only partially helped.
This improvement might be especially helpful in portable and mobile devices, as the change is made on a chip in the HD receiver, not on the transmission side.
DigitalPower Radio is not an outsider to the HD world. Its principal scientist, Brana Vojcic, has prior development experience with HD Radio technology. The Beasley Broadcast Group (a long-time HD proponent) is an investor, and DPR has brought on former FCC Chairman Mark ("TV is nothing but a toaster with pictures") Fowler as a manager.
Fowler told Radio World that their projected improvement looks promising in computer simulations, and now they’re ready to try some real-world experiments.
However, iBiquity Digital Corporation – the company that controls all of HD Radio’s intellectual property – is dismissing the potential innovation outright. According to iBiquity chief scientist Brian Kroeger, DigitalPower Radio’s experiments were based on "faulty assumptions" about HD’s current working characteristics. In effect, Kroeger submits that DPR made its analysis using an outdated version of HD technology, and the most current one already utilizes many of DPR’s proposed reception tweaks.
At the recently-concluded annual conference of the National Association of Broadcasters, both sides met with trade industry reps for further discussion. The dispute could be easily settled if iBiquity would allow an examination of its HD receiver source code, to make independent verification or debunking of DPR’s claims possible. However, iBiquity is apparently not willing to consider this.
This is very demonstrative of the tyranny of closed technological systems, where innovation is constrained to the whims of the primary developer. It’s the old Microsoft model, which iBiquity has been dedicated to pursuing since it was founded more than 12 years ago. The proprietary nature of the HD Radio system is its most glaring fundamental detriment.
It’s also why innovation in the HD Radio space comes in fits and starts. The primary developer doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to innovate on its own, and the only other parties allowed to innovate must either have direct buy-in to HD Radio or are willing to pretty much give away their work to iBiquity.
CBS and the NAB have been the primary facilitators of technical improvements to the HD standard. Multicasting, arguably the technology’s most notable feature, was developed by National Public Radio. Clear Channel handled the early efforts to market and promote the technology. And Emmis Communications is spearheading the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium as well as the industry’s primary efforts to get both analog and digital radio into mobile devices.
It is also not the first time that a digital radio innovator may get stymied by the nature of a closed HD system. Around the turn of the century, a company called Digital Radio Express unveiled a technology that allowed the transmission of digital FM signals as subcarriers to – not sidebands of – existing analog FM signals. This was initially perceived as a direct competitor to HD Radio.
In a turn of events that’s not completely clear, iBiquity acquired a share of Digital Radio Express and suddenly the company stopped marketing its technology as a bona-fide digital radio standard. Instead, it now positions itself as a supplementary datacasting system named VuCast.
Any end-game to the DigitalPower Radio dispute must involve iBiquity’s participation. If DPR’s technology does demonstrate some advantage, you can expect iBiquity to try and acquire it somehow, as that’s absolutely necessary to keep a firm lock on the entirety of HD’s fundamental intellectual property.
It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.