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Digital Wireless

British radio goes digital, led by the BBC.

The technology behind radio broadcasts has changed little over the years. Stations still broadcast analog-based FM and AM signals. Digital radio, however, could be the wave of the future, catapulting the medium into the communication revolution. Transmitting a digital rather than an analog signal offers clear sound, interference-free reception and space for dozens of stations in the bandwidth that carries a mere two or three analog equivalents. The technology is so promising that in the United States several groups are scheduled to make digital radio widely available in a year or so. But British broadcasters have beaten the Yanks-and the rest of the world-to the punch.

The United Kingdom has staked its claim as the birthplace of digital radio following the launch of the first stations available exclusively via digital broadcast. With digital services elsewhere in the world still at an experimental stage, the British broadcasters-including the venerable BBC-hope they have, literally, set a standard others will quickly follow.

The BBC first started simulcasting its national radio services four years ago, sending both analog and digital signals. Until recently, however, few listeners were able to hear the digital transmission. Manufacturers have been reluctant to develop a new generation of radios before there were digital stations to give consumers a reason to buy. This catch-22 was broken, however, by the commitment of a commercial radio group-GWR, the company behind the U.K.’s popular station Classic FM-to launch a number of digital radio stations including several that are exclusively digital. The cause was aided last summer when the BBC and GWR forged a partnership to promote digital radio. “Digital promises a quantum shift in our perceptions of what radio is,” says Quentin Howard, managing director of Digital One, the company set up by GWR to develop its digital radio interests.

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Maybe. But for the time being, Britain’s fledgling digital-radio industry will likely not be a money maker. While a number of companies, including British manufacturer Arcam, are already producing a range of digital radio receivers, the number of sets on the market is only a few thousand and sets still cost a pricey £300 ($480). But Howard predicts that cooperation between Digital One, the BBC and other commercial broadcasters will increase demand and, as supplies of digital sets increase, retail prices will fall. “It is up to the broadcasters to kick start the market,” he says.

The development of digital radio has also been delayed by the lack of a worldwide broadcasting standard. Europe has settled on a standard called Eureka 147, which has also been adopted by Canada, Mexico, South Africa and Australia. In fact, the only country looking for an alternative is the United States. To confuse matters further, European digital radio is broadcast via terrestrial transmitters, whereas the Americans are planning to broadcast via satellite. The U.K. broadcasters, however, feel their decision to encourage more digital sets to be manufactured and to create consumer demand has put Eureka 147 in position to be adopted as a global standard.

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