Digital Radio Week at the EBU
The European Broadcasting Union hosted the Digital Radio Week event in Geneva, Switzerland. Standardization around an open source and royalty-free codec could be just what the radio industry needs to make the switch from analogue to digital happen on a global scale.
During a presentation by Andreas Giefer from the IMDA, I asked why there were no royalty-free codecs in the IMDA standard for streaming media devices. Andreas replied that the IMDA had looked at Ogg codecs, but that it is a reactive rather than a proactive organization, and that there wasn't any demand from broadcasters for royalty-free codecs.
After the presentation, a couple of broadcasters confirmed to me that they are concerned about codec royalties, especially the potential for a sudden price hike. I've heard the same point before - that codec royalties don't scale for millions of streams daily, particularly for public broadcasters with fixed incomes. Perhaps broadcasters who are actively interested in a royalty-free codec option in a media device standard should present their views to the IMDA.
Another relevant presentation was from Karen Parnell of Frontier Silicon, which makes chipsets for DAB radio receivers, among other products. Karen said that one of the things making DAB radios more expensive than FM radios was the software patent on DAB, which is due to expire in a couple of years from now. This should bring the retail price of a DAB set below the 30 Euro mark, close to the price of an equivalent FM radio with RDS and an LCD display. I pointed out that if broadcasters standardize on DAB+, then the cost will go back up, due to royalties on the HE-AAC codec used by DAB+.
The receiver cost issue is important to broadcasters who want to persuade their audiences to switch from analogue to digital radio. As a long-established global standard, the FM broadcast band should be pretty much patent free by now, where as for digital radio, broadcasters have to consider the cost of patented codecs on encoding, streaming and decoding. This extra cost has to be weighed against the advantages of digital radio transmission - lower power requirements saving energy, and fewer antenna masts, which combine to create less electromagnetic radiation for humans to absorb.
The overriding theme of the week was that the digital radio space is still not standardized around the world, and that this is a major obstacle to getting support in globalized products (such as mobile phone handsets, which still only support FM for the most part). DAB, DAB+, DRM-30 and DRM+ all have their proponents, but the number of countries with widespread digital radio deployments is small. Video over radio to mobile phones is even less well supported - the only country with a significant DMB roll-out is South Korea.
Both DAB/DRM and DMB have considerable scale advantages for delivering large amounts of content, compared to using IP bandwidth. There are direct benefits to end users, the listeners, that broadcast radio is free-to-air, doesn't need logins or authentication, and is available far more widely than any IP network. But without global standardization and device support, the future of the broadcast radio industry is at risk, not least due to strong on-line competition. The FM band is crowded in almost every country, and therefore offers limited potential for new services and new market entrants.
The CELT codec, combined with DAB transmission, running on a GNU/Linux encoder and multiplex generator, offers the possibility of an end-to-end broadcast system which is entirely Free Software. Despite the efforts of standards bodies over more than twenty years, broadcasters, device OEMs and software developers still need to work together to deliver a world-wide, affordable and open standard for the future of radio.
Traveling home, it occurred to me that money paid in codec royalties by broadcasters to software patent holders directly diminishes the pot of money available to compensate artists and program makers. Most people working in radio are there because of a passionate belief in the medium, rather than because they're getting rich, but there are limits. Worse still, vested interests can cause format wars which destroy a market before it has the chance to become established. I bought a Super Audio CD player some years ago, only to discover a lack of content that interested me in either SACD or the rival DVD-Audio format.
Without the benefit of Free Software, we might reach the point where digital audio broadcasting has all the features anyone would need, but without enough content worth streaming.