Will India embrace digital radio broadcasting?
Earlier this month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) floated a consultation paper on issues related to digital radio broadcasting in India, inviting comments from stakeholders that can be submitted by 4 September. Currently, terrestrial radio broadcast is available in the Frequency Modulation (FM) and Amplitude Modulation (AM) mode with All India Radio (AIR) running 420 stations (AM and FM) that cover almost 92% of the country by area and 99.20% of the country by population. Meanwhile, private sector radio broadcasters transmit programmes in FM mode only.
Trai, which has suo motu decided to take up the cause of digital radio broadcasting, claims in the consultation paper that analogue terrestrial radio broadcasting, when compared with digital mode, is “inefficient and suffers with operational restrictions”. It adds that transmission in analogue mode is susceptible to radio frequency (RF) interference, resulting in poor reception quality. Besides, analogue allows only one channel per transmitter. It is “spectrally inefficient as frequency reuse is limited and radio channels require more spectrum per channel”, it says, adding that signal quality could suffer in portable environments such as moving vehicles or on hand-held devices. That is not all. Analogue transmission does not offer the flexibility to provide any value-added services.
In contrast, it lists the advantages that digital radio technologies have over analogue, including better signal quality and clear reception, efficient use of allocated frequency as multiple radio channels can be broadcast on a single frequency and efficient reception of radio channels in static, portable and mobile environments (such as moving vehicles, mobile phones etc.). Digitization of radio will also allow the government to retrieve spectrum and re-allocate it for more efficient use. While AIR is active in implementation of digital radio in MW (medium wave) and SW (short wave) bands, there appears to be no initiative in the FM radio space either by public or private FM radio broadcasters, Trai said in the consultation paper.
On the face of it, a proposed switch to digital radio seems like a progressive move. Or at least Trai sees it that way. In fact there are some advantages to the government as well, should it choose to exploit them. A lot more channels can be accommodated in a given spectrum band than is possible with FM. As a result, more programming variety can be offered. The government can also potentially earn a lot more in the form of auction fees. There are also transmission quality advantages. If the topography of a city is made up of mountains or high-rises, then digital transmission is better than FM. There are other advantages too. Digital audio broadcast (DAB) makes a range of value-added services possible. Some additional information (song name, singer name) can be transmitted in textual form along with the radio signal. According to Trai, the DAB receiver displays can provide not only information about the music being played but weather reports, traffic advisory, stock market prices and much else.
Yet broadcast experts and radio industry executives are less than enthused about Trai’s consultation paper. They do not see any real benefit in the move. The biggest disadvantage is that listeners need to buy special radio receivers. “I can’t imagine anyone buying special radio sets in today’s day and age. These receivers are fairly expensive, costing between Rs2,000 and Rs10,000. Most radio is consumed on phones or in cars or via music systems. Unfortunately, none of these devices supports digital transmission. This is the single biggest disadvantage of digital radio,” says Prashant Panday, chief executive officer at Radio Mirchi, the FM radio brand of the Times Group.
Besides, radio firms cannot give up on FM transmission after investing so much in it. Radio firms have not only paid huge licence fees to the government (in advance for 15 years), they have invested in setting up the facilities. Digital radio is still in a very nascent stage, even in Europe. For FM broadcasters, digital transmission represents additional costs with no matching revenue. “For revenues to come, there needs to be a well-developed ecosystem of radio receivers. That’s going to be very difficult in India,” says Panday.
Sunil Kumar, managing partner, Blue Broadcast Systems, a media infrastructure firm, also fails to understand why Trai is keen on a move to digital radio. “They are talking about a technology which the world is not too sure of. The reason they have given in the consultation paper is to increase radio’s audience size by offering wider choice of content. And to counter the competition analogue FM radio is facing from emerging technologies such as webcasting, podcasting, music streaming sites/apps. It may be a noble thought but wouldn’t work in the absence of radio receivers,” he argues.
Jehil Thakkar, partner, consulting at Deloitte, also feels that the real challenge will be to have consumers make the switch to digital radios and receivers—“and this is a slow and gradual process unless the government mandates a switchover”. Frankly, even globally, not too many countries have adopted DAB. Norway is probably one example where radio has gone digital.
Besides, Kumar says that a new radio receiver is required each time there’s an upgrade in the DAB version. And India is too large a country to be covered by DAB. “Size is the reason why large countries such as the US or Canada or China or Russia have not taken to it,” he says.
(The radio stations of HT Media Ltd, publisher of Mint, and Times Group compete in several markets.)
Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at email@example.com.