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Roger Lanctot: Free Radio @ Risk

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Roger Lanctot is Associate Director of Strategy Analytics, and a thought leader in the connected-car space. He is an influential voice in the field of automotive infotainment systems, and safety, in cars of the present and future.


Could wireless carriers take over the broadcast of radio content, removing a vital source of content and information delivery from the free airways? This concept was implanted into my brain as the result of a presentation given by a Swedish broadcaster who was intending to make the point that no such thing could or would happen.

The strenuous effort by this broadcaster, Teracom, to claim that wireless carriers could and would never in a million years take on the task of broadcasting radio content, actually introduced a concept that I had never even considered before. And rather than vanquishing this idea, it planted the seed (cue: Simon & Garfunkel). Each point that was intended to highlight its impossibility actually pointed to its potential practicality.

The Teracom executive was presenting at the National Radio Conference of Commercial Radio Australia.

Transitions

Sweden, like most radio broadcast markets today, is in the throes of a transition to digital radio. In Sweden, the target date is 2022 and the format is DAB+. The switchover to digital is intended to enable broadcasters to deliver a greater variety of higher quality content at lower cost. The use of digital broadcast technology even has green credentials.

Presenting at an Australian radio industry event was relevant because each and every country has its own regulatory challenges and conflicts in the digital radio transition. The Teracom report, which is freely available from Teracom, highlights Sweden’s unique issues, but the concept of wireless carriage of radio broadcasts has global interest.

Teracom’s study was conducted by A-focus. The A-focus study was intended to respond to the following proposition described in the report’s introduction: “One of the major criticisms is that ‘there is no need for terrestrial radio’ since ‘the cellular networks will handle the small traffic generated from radio listening.'”

As you might imagine, such a premise amounts to “fighting words” in the broadcast industry. The statement is shocking on two counts — first, that there is “no need” for terrestrial radio; and, second, that the cellular networks can handle the “small traffic.”

The report provides a detailed and perhaps predictable assessment of the volume of data traffic required to take on existing radio broadcasts in Sweden. The report estimates the cost of such a switchover and concludes, perhaps correctly, that it is impossible or, at least, improbable.

The Teracom presentation made all the appropriate points regarding cost, wireless network coverage and availability, and the penetration of wireless phone ownership. All of these metrics pointed to the inappropriateness of wireless carriage for radio broadcast content delivery.

But the average listener to such a report is not likely to ever have considered comprehensive wireless carriage for radio signals. So the report actually gets the listener thinking about this possibility for the first time.

The presentation takes place in the midst of massive disruption in the radio industry. Not only is radio wrestling with the cost, equipment and consumer behavior implications of a switch to digital broadcasting, it is also feeling the pressure from listeners taking advantage of a much wider range of IP-based audio sources.

Streaming audio sources have replaced pre-recorded content on mobile devices as the greatest and growing alternative (threat?) to over-the-air listening to broadcast commercial radio. In fact, the introduction of LTE technology around the world has introduced wireless broadcast as an option, which is the likely source of the Teracom/A-focus straw-man of carriers taking over radio broadcast.

Tug of War

But yet a third influence is at play, which is the global tug of war over spectrum. Government regulators and lobbyists are tussling over the reconfiguration of wireless networks to achieve strategic government objectives and/or to serve commercial interests. In the midst of these deliberations some foresee free over the air television and radio at risk.

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine free TV going away completely in favor of satellite and/or cable delivery, with the television spectrum auctioned off to wireless carriers or to enable wider access to the Internet. (I can’t remember the last time I obtained my television content for free.) Could radio end up along a similar path?

This is an important question for the automotive industry which is constantly fielding questions as to when radios will disappear from dashboards. It is also one of the major motivators behind Sprint and Emmis Communications’ efforts to force the wireless industry to integrate FM chips in mobile phones.

Sprint and Emmis have now been joined in their lobbying efforts by iHeartRadio, iBiquity and the BBC. The concept, called NextRadio by Sprint and Emmis, will require the integration of FM chips in mobile phones to allow them to receive free over-the-air broadcast content. The technology also enables novel content integration via an app.

Free over-the-air TV is facing a phase-out in some international markets, though no such plan is proposed in the U.S. And I know of no immediate plan to shift radio broadcasts entirely to wireless carriage. The shift from analog to digital for radio will be trauma enough.

Listening Shift

But streaming audio content has become a lifeline for some carriers in some markets. T-Mobile in the U.S. and, now, Vodafone in Australia have turned to free, unlimited streaming content via particular apps as the means to shore up their subscriber numbers.

Combine the proliferation of streaming content via mobile phones with the increasing adoption of smartphone integration systems in cars and you have a recipe for a de facto shift of audio listening from broadcast radio to the wireless network. So, contrary to what Teracom and A-focus may suggest, consumers are voting with their handsets enabled by the wireless carriers and the car companies.

I won’t get into the importance and value of maintaining an independent and free over-the-air broadcast radio component for any national system. The importance of radio for communicating emergency information or during emergencies is well known. And radio, of course, delivers an extraordinary contextual content experience … for free!

But Teracom has quite provocatively and accidentally raised the specter of radio content broadcast entirely via the wireless networks. If you still have any doubts as to the existing trend moving in this direction simply consider the iHeartRadio app, Omny, TuneIn Radio, Aha, v-tuner, Rivet Radio, and the thousands of individual radio station apps.

Teracom and A-focus may have determined that it makes no sense for wireless carriers to take on the entirety of existing radio transmissions – but it is already happening.

The A-focus original report can be ordered free of charge through Lotta Darlin, Teracom: lotta.darlin@teracom.se

Roger Lanctot

One Comment

  1. Great discussion. The underlying question here is whether radio is driven by transmission licenses or by programming that drives audience aggregation. If it is a transmission oriented business, then telecom carriers should be seen as potential competitors given the ongoing shift of listening to streaming on mobile devices. The evidence of 100 million listeners in the U.S. on mobile devices is clear and compelling. However, if radio is primarily an entertainment programming and audience aggregation business, then the carriers are partners distributing content. Where is the value, the license or the audience? Sure, it may be both now, but what about five years from now.

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