Digital Radio and its endless benefits

Digital Radio, in addition to excellent quality, multiple services and power conservation, also presents a lot of value added services, says Yogendra Pal, Honorable Chairman of India Chapter of Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) Consortium.

The radio that we listen today is an analog radio, which is available on medium wave (MW), short wave (SW) and frequency modulation (FM). All India Radio (AIR) has a wide coverage through medium wave transmitters practically in every nook and corner of the country and all parts of the world on short wave.

The coverage of AIR on FM is about 42 per cent, while that of private FM broadcasters cover only about 20 per cent.

The problem lies in the quality of analog radio which is not that good. FM gives fairly good audio quality but it is a 70 year old technology which is spectrum hungry and has reached its development limits. It might be a good solution for here and now, but not a strategic choice for the future.

To improve the quality of radio, digital transmitters are being used worldwide. Digital transmitters have very good quality transmissions, the kind which is not even imaginable on analog one.

Short Wave transmissions, which are the only way to provide radio signals to the listeners all across the world free of charge, face problems of fading and distortion. However with digital radio, there is no such problem. As a result, most of radio broadcasters all over the world are  becoming digital using DRM digital system.

Apart from audio quality, digital radio has numerous other advantages too. The biggest advantage is that the transmitters in analog can broadcast only one programme at one frequency, while in the digital format we can broadcast three to four programmes (channels) on a single frequency and ensure excellent quality of all the channels.

In order to tune to a radio station in digital radio, we are not required to remember the frequency. Names of available radio stations are displayed on the screen of the digital radio automatically which helps in selecting the station of choice. It is just like a search facility available on mobile phones which we can be used to tune a station of our choice by selection of the station’s name, rather than by frequency.

Digital radio also presents itself with a lot of value added services like scrolling text. On a digital radio, there is a small screen which displays the scrolling text. One big advantage is that the digital mode allows display of any kind of information along with the song played in the text format during the broadcast period.

Along with the stated advantages, one major benefit a digital radio provides is its relation with  emergency warning. When a disaster takes place, telephone lines usually do not work, power supply and internet too, breaks down; however, radio continues to work on batteries. Additionally, when someone is tuned-in to a particular channel and an emergency warning is broadcast on a different channel, than the digital radio receiver gets tuned to the emergency warning channel automatically. In such a case, one does not miss that crucial piece of information in emergencies.

Such emergency warning services can also be linked to rescue operations during the disasters.

Another advantage is that of broadcasting traffic information. All developed countries have linked digital radio stations to the traffic information system. All sorts of traffic related dynamic information, in the form of text and graphics, can be displayed on digital radio.

A digital radio is required to enjoy digital radio transmissions. Till digital radios are available to all the listeners, DRM digital system enables availability of programmes in simulcast mode i.e. in analogue as well as in digital modes from the same transmitter.

Talking about its importance for the Community Radio, in analog FM one Community Radio can broadcast only one programme. As of now only four frequencies have been granted to Community Radio and as such only four Community Radio stations can be available at a particular location. However, since digital radio is able to broadcast three programmes at the same time at one frequency, so on digital radio, using the four allocated frequencies, it is possible to provide three times stations i.e. up to 12 community radio stations at one place.

If one Community Radio has installed a transmitter and two more community radio stations use the same transmitter to broadcast their content in digital, then the total cost can be shared by three stations. Also the running and maintenance cost per radio station will also get reduced to one-third per station.

Digital Radio in foreign countries, especially in developed countries like UK and Australia, has become very popular. In India, All India Radio has already installed 10 MW and 2 SW DRM digital transmitters. Another 25 MW and 2 SW DRM digital transmitters are at different stages of installation and commissioning. With the commissioning of all these transmitters, over 50 per cent  population of the country would have access to excellent quality multiple digital radio services along with value added services.

DRM receivers are available in the world market but the prices are a bit high. Surely prices would come down with demand as in the case of mobile phones.

DRM receivers have been successfully demonstrated in automobiles by an Indian firm. Indian manufacturers see a great future in DRM and one Indian firm has successfully developed a desktop digital DRM receiver. The automobile industry is also waiting to finalise plans to incorporate digital DRM receivers in the vehicles. All of them want to know the exact DRM implementation schedule and the extra features and services which will be made available from digital DRM transmitters. They also want to know whether private broadcasters will be able to be leasing some of the channels, as recommended by Dr Sam Pitroda Committee. Domestic manufactures see it as a great Make in India opportunity for manufacturing of DRM receivers not only for domestic demand but also for export.

The main challenge for popularity of digital radio is that the multiple audio and value added services will be made available to listeners in digital domain so that they would be motivated to buy digital radio receivers.

Author: Yogendra Pal, Chairman, India Chapter of Digital Radio Mondiale