Digital shortwave radio is no dream: It exists today. Right now, foreign-service broadcasters in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceana and the Americas are providing regular digital radio broadcasts over shortwave, using the DRM30 transmission standard.
“The Digital Radio Mondiale AM solution operates worldwide,” said Ruxandra Obreja. She is chair of the DRM Consortium, the international not-for-profit group of broadcasters, transmitter/receiver manufacturers and broadcasting unions, who use and promote the DRM30 standard for short, medium and longwave and DRM+ for VHF. “In the past 18 months, India and Russia have already adopted it [DRM30] as their digital solution and have earmarked serious investment for its implementation.”
In July 2010, Indian public-service broadcaster All India Radio issued a tender for 40 new medium-wave and five new shortwave transmitters for DRM operation, as well as the upgrade of 36 other transmitters to support DRM30.
DRM30 is meant to replace interference-prone analog AM broadcasting with a reliable digital signal that delivers high quality audio plus a host of data features. However, the system has been stymied by a limited availability of receivers.
DRM’s progress to date has been “very little in Europe and North America,” said Andy Sennitt, longtime shortwave radio watcher and editor in charge of the Radio Netherlands “Media Network” website. “Most emphasis now seems to be on India, China and South America.”
However, at the IBC2011 trade show in Amsterdam, the situation showed signs of changing.
At several events during the exhibition, the DRM Consortium highlighted new partnerships with receiver manufacturers that are expected to bring several new models to market over the coming year, including new standalone, USB-based, in-car and professional receivers.
Also, chipmaker Frontier Silicon announced that it was adding implementations of DRM30 and DRM+ to its Kino 3 radio processor, one of the most widely used digital radio IC chips on the market.
However, these positive signs have been a long time in coming.
Gerhard J. Straub, director of the Broadcast Technologies Division at the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB); the agency that runs the Voice of America and Radio Martí, says the slow uptake of DRM30 are shared by all digital radio systems, which have not benefited from governmental mandates the way digital television has.
“I think the consumer is overwhelmed with media choices today and unless there is compelling content available on a specific platform, what incentive is there to migrate to a specific technology over another one?” he said.
Then there’s the issue of supply and demand: Broadcasters don’t want to switch to DRM30 unless there are enough receivers in use worldwide. Meanwhile, receiver manufacturers have been reluctant to commit to DRM, due to a lack of programming.
“DRM is not seen as a profitable line for the major manufacturers,” said Sennitt. “A few smaller manufacturers have produced DRM receivers, but the unit cost is still too high, and there simply aren’t enough DRM transmissions audible at any one location to stimulate consumer demand. It’s a classic chicken and egg situation — which comes first, the transmissions or the receivers? The broadcasters and the receiver manufacturers are each waiting for the other to move first.”