Will India embrace digital broadcasting?

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Earlier this month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) launched a consultation paper on digital broadcasting issues in India, inviting comments from stakeholders by September 4. Currently, terrestrial radio broadcasting is available in frequency modulation (FM) and amplitude modulation (AM) mode with All India Radio (AIR) running 420 stations (AM and FM) which covers almost 92% of the country by area and 99.20% of the country by population. Meanwhile, private sector broadcasters transmit programs in FM mode only.

Trai, who suo motu decided to take up the cause of digital broadcasting, asserts in the consultation document that analogue terrestrial broadcasting, compared to digital mode, is “inefficient and suffers from operational restrictions”. He adds that transmission in analog mode is susceptible to radio frequency (RF) interference, which results in poor reception quality. Also, analog allows only one channel per transmitter. It’s “spectrally inefficient because frequency reuse is limited and radio channels require more spectrum per channel,” he says, adding that signal quality could suffer in portable environments such as moving vehicles or on devices. laptops. That’s not all. Analog transmission does not provide the flexibility needed to provide value-added services.

On the other hand, it lists the advantages of digital radio technologies over analogue, including better signal quality and clear reception, efficient use of assigned frequency as multiple radio channels can be broadcast on a single frequency, and reception effective radio channels in static, portable and mobile environments (such as moving vehicles, cell phones, etc.). Digitizing radio will also allow the government to reclaim spectrum and reallocate it for more efficient use. Although AIR is active in the implementation of digital radio in the MW (medium wave) and SW (short wave) bands, there does not seem to be any initiative in the FM radio space from broadcasters. Public or private FMs, Trai said in the consultation paper.

At first glance, a plan to switch to digital radio seems like a step-by-step decision. Or at least Trai sees it that way. In fact, there are also advantages for the government, if it chooses to exploit them. Many more channels can be accommodated in a given band of spectrum than is possible with FM. As a result, a greater variety of programming 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 consists of mountains or skyscrapers, digital transmission is better than FM. There are also other advantages. Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) enables a range of value added services. Some additional information (song name, singer name) can be transmitted in text form along with the radio signal. According to Trai, DAB receiver screens can provide not only information about the music being played, but also weather reports, traffic advisories, stock quotes and more.

Yet broadcasting pundits and radio industry executives are less enthusiastic about Trai’s consultation paper. They see no real benefit in the move. The biggest disadvantage is that listeners have to buy special radio receivers. “I can’t imagine anyone buying special radio sets these days. These receivers are quite expensive, costing between Rs2,000 and Rs10,000. Most radios are consumed on phones or in cars or through music systems. Unfortunately, none of these devices support digital transmission. This is the main drawback of digital radio,” says Prashant Panday, managing director of Radio Mirchi, the Times Group’s FM radio brand.

Also, radio companies cannot abandon FM transmission after investing so much in it. The radio companies not only paid huge licensing fees to the government (up-front for 15 years), but they invested in setting up the facilities. Digital radio is still in its infancy, even in Europe. For FM broadcasters, digital transmission represents additional costs without corresponding revenues. “For revenue to come, there has to be a well-developed ecosystem of radio receivers. It’s going to be very difficult in India,” says Panday.

Sunil Kumar, managing partner of Blue Broadcast Systems, a media infrastructure company, also doesn’t understand why Trai is keen on switching to digital radio. “They’re talking about technology that the world isn’t too sure about. The reason cited in the consultation document is to increase radio audiences by offering a greater choice of content. And to counter the competition that analog FM radio is facing from emerging technologies such as webcasting, podcasting, music streaming sites/apps. It may be a noble idea, but it wouldn’t work without radio receivers,” he explains.

Jehil Thakkar, partner, consultant at Deloitte, also believes the real challenge will be getting consumers on to digital radios and receivers – “and it’s a slow and gradual process unless the government orders a switch”. Frankly, even globally, few countries have adopted DAB. Norway is probably an example where radio has gone digital.

Moreover, Kumar says that a new radio receiver is needed whenever there is an upgrade in the DAB version. And India is too big a country to be covered by DAB. “The size is the reason why big countries like the United States, Canada, China or Russia haven’t adopted 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 Publicity Editor. Ordinary Post will examine pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at [email protected]

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