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volume 4
june 2001

Radio wars

 





  Digital versus WAP
by Geoff Baldwin
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  You can throw your radio receiver in the dustbin. The mobile phone will take its place, so radio indie "Somethin' Else", the "first entertainment network designed specifically for WAP enabled phones" claims. Geoff Baldwin explores the frontlines of a new radio war.
 
1 In the age of the internet, that grand old dame of broadcasting — radio — is undergoing a serious facelift. Talk to anyone who is anyone in this broadcasting sector and they can hardly hide their jubilation that TV, radio's better-funded cousin, seems for once to be lagging behind on the technology, content and business front. This is partly down to bits and bytes. Radio takes up far less bandwidth than video, making it much easier to stream and store on the computer and all manner of consumer electronic devices, from wap phones to personal digital assistants. Another reason for radio stealing a march is that listening appears ideally matched to the new lifestyle of the convergent age. As Russell Stuart, managing director of radio group GVJR's digital services, argues: "People on the web don't want to watch TV as they surf, but they do want to listen to the radio."
2 Our busy lifestyles and our increasing demands to be entertained on the move make radio the ideal entertainment purveyor, a point not lost on advertisers. According, to NTL's broadcast radio director Jon Trowsdale: "Advertising on radio has gone up while TV's share has gone down because the TV audience has fragmented. The opposite is happening with radio, as more people listen to it than ever before." The result is that delivering content to consumers who are on the move is developing into a battleground where a number of different technologies are fighting it out. Currently squaring up to each other are digital radio and Wap. Digital radio is a relatively mature medium. The digital audio broadcasting (DAB) standard is well established in Europe and receivers have been on the market for a while. The BBC started broadcasting digital radio as far back as 1995 and all of its main stations are now transmitted digitally.
3 GWR has similarly been transmitting digitally for some time and is the joint owner with NTL of the national muliplex Digital One. Capital and Emap have also bitten the bait, with the former launching Capital FM and Gold digitally a year ago. Both broadcasters — normally rivals — have even joined hands to form the CE digital consortium. to bid jointly for local radio licences throughout Britain. With all this momentum and investment from the big radio groups, it would be easy to believe that digital radio is making good headway. But it isn't. One of the main obstacles to growth is the cost of the receivers. U.K. companies like Aream, Roberts and Cymbol have led the way in bringing out receivers for the home. But their prices — around £500 a throw — are still way too high to make digital radio tuners mass-market items.
4 While prices are gradually coming down, all the radio broadcasters agree that a much bigger push is needed. Peter Simmons, programme controller at Life, Capital Radio's adult station on the Digital One platform, insists that the "price of receivers must come down to below £200." But none of the big radio groups are ready to subsidise the cost of the receiver in the same way On Digital and Sky did for digital set-top boxes. Says GWR's Russell Stuart: " We don't think subsidy is the right way forward. We are not a bank open to the manufacturers."
5 While radio groups, manufacturers, retailers and the government are busy blaming each other for a lack of lower cost radios, other ways of targeting the mobile listener are emerging. Unlike the digital radio receiver, the mobile phone is a cheap mass-market device which, thanks to the wireless application protocol (WAP), provides an interactive return path. While the current data rate on the Wap phone is very limited (it is much lower than a domestic phoneline), the new 3G systems will have band-width rates close to broadcast quality levels. Some are already well advanced with planning radio content for this new generation of mobile phones — such as radio indie "Somethin' Else". This entertainment specialist has already signed a deal with BT to launch the XY network, which it describes as "the first entertainment network designed specifically for WAP enabled phones".
6 While "Somethin' Else" is producing traditional radio for the mobile phone, such as book serialisations and music, the company is also planning some wacky interactive audio content, to make full use of WAP phones' two-way capability. Director of interactive broadcast Paul Bennun explains: "Imagine you are listening to The Archers and they are threatening to concrete the cricket pitch. We want to give fans the opportunity to intervene and, for instance, chain themselves to the trees on the pitch." The big radio groups are quick to point out that mobile phones do not enable free access radio — which is one of digital radio's big selling points. The BBC's managing editor of digital radio, Glyn Jones, argues: "Sponsorship, advertising and public licence fee models combine well to make that business work." Bennun agrees that new ways of charging for the audio content will have to be thought out. "You might have a perminute or a per-feature way of charging, or a subscription fee for basic services."
7 Ironically, one future scenario proposes a detente between digital and WAP technology. Simon Spanswick, director of London's second digital multiplex Switch Digital, is in talks with radiocasters and consumer electronics manufacturers to bring a device to market that combines the best of both. "Initially, it will be two separate units," he explains. "You will have a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone and will plug in a pager-sized device that will be the digital radio receiver. The technology enables the transmission of digital radio but makes use of the GSM return path for interactive data services. The idea is that you get better-quality radio to the listener and by broadcasting to a multitude of people at the same time, you avoid the traffic congestion problems — a major drawback of mobiles."
8 But you get the return path offered by GSM that digital radio does not have and you also inherit the mass consumer market and the billing systems that are a feature of mobile phones. For this gadget to become the next big thing, it will have to be attractively priced. While Spanswick cannot yet give specifics, he guarantees it will be much lower than current digital radio receivers. With regard to WAP versus digital, the jury is still out.
   
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