Will India adopt digital broadcasting?


Earlier this month, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) launched a consultation paper on issues related to digital broadcasting in India, urging stakeholders to submit their comments by September 4. . Currently, terrestrial radio broadcasting is available in frequency modulation (FM) and amplitude modulation (AM) mode with All India Radio (AIR) broadcasting 420 stations (AM and FM) which cover 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 has decided to champion the cause of digital broadcasting, said in the consultation document that analogue terrestrial broadcasting, compared to digital mode, is “inefficient and suffers from operational restrictions”. He adds that the transmission in analog mode is sensitive to radio frequency (RF) interference, resulting in poor reception quality. In addition, analog only allows one channel per transmitter. It is “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 highways. portable devices. That’s not all. Analogue transmission does not offer the flexibility to provide value added services.

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

At first glance, a proposed switch to digital radio appears to be a gradual move. Or at least Trai sees it that way. In fact, there are also certain advantages for the government, if it chooses to exploit them. Many more channels can be accommodated in a given spectrum band 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 advantages in terms of transmission quality. If a city’s topography is made up of mountains or skyscrapers, then 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) may be transmitted in text form with the radio signal. According to Trai, the screens of the DAB receiver can provide not only information about the music being played, but also weather reports, traffic advisories, stock prices and much more.

Yet broadcast pundits and radio industry executives are not enthusiastic about Trai’s consultation paper. They see no real benefit in the move. The biggest downside is that listeners have to buy special radio receivers. “I can’t imagine anyone buying special radios these days. These receivers are quite expensive, between Rs 2,000 and Rs 10,000. Most radio is consumed on phones or in cars or through music systems. Unfortunately, none of these devices support digital transmission. This is the biggest downside to digital radio, ”says Prashant Panday, CEO of Radio Mirchi, the Times Group’s FM radio brand.

Also, radio companies cannot give up FM transmission after investing so much in it. The radio companies have not only paid huge license fees to the government (in advance for 15 years), they have 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 revenue. “For income 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 wants to switch to digital radio. “They are talking about a technology that the world is not too sure about. The reason they gave in the consultation paper is to increase the size of the radio audience by offering a greater choice of content. And to counter the competition analog FM radio faces with emerging technologies such as webcasting, podcasting, music streaming sites / apps. It might be a noble idea, but it wouldn’t work in the absence of radio receivers, ”he says.

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

In addition, Kumar says that a new radio receiver is required every time there is an upgrade in the DAB version. And India is too big a country to be covered by DAB. “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 advertising editor. Ordinary Post will address pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Reply to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com.

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