Government of India seems to have had a change of heart as far as its digitization strategy for radio is concerned, particularly on the choice of technology for the future.
The first phase of India’s radio digitization — which has the potential to deliver CD-quality sound on radio receivers — was started around 11 years ago.
Under this strategy, Prasar Bharati has finished putting up 38 digital radio towers across the country, which cover a large chunk of the country.
Three out of the 38 transmit digital radio signals globally using the short wave band, while the other 35 have been put up in the medium wave band. A MW station can deliver its signals up to a distance of around 300-350 km, and two or three are usually enough to cover an entire state.
However, despite All India Radio having one of the most advanced digital radio networks in the world, practically no one in India listens to over-the-air digital radio services, calling into question the extensive investment that has been made in this sector.
The primary reason for the lack of popularity has been that India chose a nascent platform — Digital Radio Mondiale — a technology that is particularly suited as a stand-in replacement for analog medium wave and short wave transmissions.
However, India paid the price of being an early adopter, as most other countries went with other technologies. European countries, for example, went with DAB or Digital Audio Broadcast, while the US market saw the proliferation of proprietary technologies.
Because of the fragmentation of the market, radio makers feared that receivers manufactured for the DRM platform would not benefit from economies of scale, and most radio manufacturers preferred to focus on other technologies like DAB and its successor DAB+.
Even in India, where the DAB standard is not in use, digital radios based on this technology are available, while there are practically no DRM radio sets that cost less than Rs 3,000 in the market.
The DRM Consortium, which represents industrial, academic and other stakeholders of the DRM platform, has responded to this article, and pointed out that no digital radio technology can be considered to be uniquely successful or popular, and promised that cheaper terminals are on their way.
“The first phase which meant carefully evaluating all the top digital audio broadcasting standards recommended by ITU started earlier than 11 years ago. DAB was then rejected as a very local and expensive solution unfit for the Indian requirements,” pointed out Ruxandra Obreja, chairman of DRM Consortium in an emailed comment.
“The DRM decision was taken about 10 years ago, to go for MW and SW followed by a long tender period and the construction of the towers, antennas and optimisation of the digital infrastructure, which takes time, as it is an effort that is supposed to bear fruit and benefit a country over many decades. DRM is the newest digital audio broadcast standard, recommended for FM only in 2011. DAB and HD standards have been around for 40 years, FM for about 70 and radio 100. Introducing new technology is not a simple project..”
Obreja also objected to calling the decision to go with DRM a blunder.
“DRM is not a “blunder” and not the wrong technology. It is the most suited for India as it is the only open, internationally recommended, energy and spectrum efficient digital technology covering ALL radio frequency bands: SW, MW and VHF (band I, band II FM and band III, the only one that can be used by DAB+ and which as you say is not really available in India,” Obreja said.
She pointed out that it often takes longer than a decade or two for a new technology to become popular.
“Europe launched DAB many decades ago, not very successfully the first two times in the UK, for example. UK, and to a degree Germany, have made progress only when the whole eco-system: industry, government, regulator and broadcasters worked together and also seeded the receiver manufacturing industry. DRM receivers are available and several models are appearing in India while the price will go down with volumes and serious orders.”
“The receiver solutions exist, new pocket receivers are ready to be launched shortly (with all frequency bands) and as the quality of digital radio (excellent audio and multimedia which means emergency warning, distance learning, traffic news) in all bands gets popularised the desire for new digital receivers will increase,” she emphasized.
Nevertheless, the failure of the digital radio project to become popular seems to have prompted the central government to have a rethink on its strategy, going by comments made by the information and broadcasting ministry today.
Responding to the question of when the remaining stations of All India Radio are going to be digitized, I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar indicated that the government is still evaluating the best technology to adopt for future projects.
“Testing is currently underway to evaluate latest Digital Terrestrial Radio Technologies/ Standards that are both backward compatible and ubiquitously available as well as in line with emerging standards such as 5G Direct to Mobile Broadcasting,” he said.
“[The] roadmap for further digitalization of terrestrial radio services will be based on evaluation of these latest technologies and their viability.”
Digital transmission, whether of radio or TV, results in high quality delivery of signals with negligible deterioration in quality.
On the other hand, analog transmission, such as FM and AM, tends to be highly prone to interference and their signals cannot be compared to those of a CD or an MP3 player.
In the radio sector, even the private companies are using analog transmission due to the lack of digital listening devices (radio receivers) in the country, as well as lack of regulatory support for digital transmission.
There are, meanwhile, calls to allow private FM broadcasters to also start broadcasting in the digital mode, either as part of their existing licenses or as new licensees. The current FM band allocations contain so-called whites spaces or gaps that can be used to transmit digital radio signals.
One of the advantages of using such white spaces is that this would allow mobile phones with regular FM reception to start receiving digital signals as well through a software upgrade, with zero changes to the hardware.
DRM Consortium’s Obreja also pointed out that the current evaluation of technologies is not on the question of whether to rip out the existing DRM transmitters and replace them with another technology, but on the proper choice of technology for the expansion of digital radio to newer bands, particularly FM.
“Testing is indeed underwayat the moment as per TRAI’s recommendation and the Ministry and Prasar Bharati need to take a decision shortly on the digitisation of FM. DRM is involved in proving that DRM in FM is a viable, perfect solution and that the 2.5 million cars with DRM MW receivers on the Indian roads currently, can be upgraded to DRM FM, too. So the re-evaluation is not about MW but about extending digitisation to all the used bands in India and indeed about the future! And it make sense to use the same terrestrial audio system (DRM) for all bands rather than mix and match and confuse the market totally negating the effort and investment made already,” she said.
She agreed that mobiles could be a large focus area for digital FM roll out, and that this could triple the capacity of the deployed FM spectrum and channels.
“Mobiles could carry digital signals, and not in the white spaces only, but also in the current frequencies which could accommodate up to three digital programmes instead of one analogue programme without extra data. This means a very good use of the spectrum and progress for the FM popular content but in digital,” she said.
However, Obreja also added that this would require some amount of cooperation from handset manufacturers. “The mobile only update sounds very exciting but is dependent on the big phone manufacturers willing to include to make available such a free service in a business model predicated on extracting profit from every inch of data,” she pointed out.
India has had much greater success in digitizing its TV services via a massive campaign starting in the 2000s, and which lasted for around 10 years.
At present, nearly all cable and satellite TV services in India are carried on in the digital mode.
However, even in television, Prasar Bharati has been the laggard, and has not been able to keep pace with private companies when it comes to digitization. Even at present, nearly all over-the-air terrestrial transmission and consumption of television signals in India takes place in the analog mode, despite efforts being started two decades ago to convert OTA TV transmission to digital.
The experience in television suggests that true momentum and demand will find the digital radio sector only when private radio broadcasters are allowed to enter the arena. Most Indian consumers are unlikely to invest even Rs 1,000 on a digital radio if the only programs they can receive on it are those of the state broadcaster.
NOTE: The story has been updated with feedback from DRM Consortium, including extensive quotes from chairman Ruxandra Obreja.