Canberra Digital Radio lives for another year

And so does Darwin’s.

Yesterday Commercial Radio Australia announced that the Australian Communications and Media Authority have extended the trial that permits digital radio to operate, at low power, in Canberra for another year. Likewise for Darwin. These are scientific licences to allow ‘field testing and continued coverage modelling to be used by the industry and ACMA in the planning of the DAB+ rollout to other regional areas.’

It seems unlikely that we will lose DAB+ radio now ahead of an eventual legalisation of it generally in regional areas.

What follows are some thoughts I published in October in last year in The Canberra Times following ABC joining in the trial.

With the addition of the ABC stations this year, Canberra Digital Radio alone carries 17 stations!

But still not everything. The community stations on FM — 1ART, 1WAY and so on — are still only on FM. Nor has the ABC completely moved over. What we now have from ABC on digital radio are 666 ABC Canberra, ABC Radio National, and three digital-only channels: ABC Jazz, ABC Grandstand and Triple J Unearthed. It’s the first two that are the important ones, though. Until now they have been available only on AM. The other broadcast stations — ABC News Radio, ABC Classic FM and ABC Triple J — remain on the FM scale.

The significance of this is that most digital radios receive both digital and FM, but not AM.

Digital radio not only has lots of stations, it’s also sounding pretty good these days. Last year the commercial radio stations sounded a lot like their AM feeds were being processed to sound better on AM radio before being fed into the digital radio encoding system. In other words, they sounded poor.

Now, they sound surprisingly good. Even 666 ABC and ABC Radio National, which labour under a low 48kbps bitrate. The advanced digital codec (AAC+) seems to be quite robust under low bitrates. The music stations ABC Jazz and Triple J Unearthed get a healthier 56kbps. Remember, the higher the bitrate, the less content that needs to be thrown away to get it to fit. The hope behind the codec is that the stuff thrown away is inaudible anyway, but there are obviously limits to this. For comparison, a standard MP3 music file is usually 128kbps, and higher quality ones are 320kbps. Uncompressed CD quality sound runs at 1,411kbps.

All the commercial stations run at 64kbps. SBS mixes it up with 48kbps for its two mostly-talk stations, SBS 1 and SBS 2, but a healthy 80kbps for its two music stations, SBS Chill and SBS Pop Asia.

The four main commercial stations (two on AM, two on FM) are replicated on digital radio, and there are a bunch of others. As I write Classic Hits Plus, for example, is playing a live version of some iteration of Pink Floyd performing a live version of ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’. Doesn’t sound half bad either.

Hot Country gives you, well, what you’d expect. My Canberra lives up to its claim of ‘playing a smooth selection of favourites from the 70’s to today.’ RADAR RADIO is pretty right up to date with music with a harder edge, including new music from unsigned artists.

And the nice thing about these new stations is that advertisements are few and far between, for the moment at least.

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2 Responses to Canberra Digital Radio lives for another year

  1. Mark says:

    A side note, I found a competition to win a car on the http://www.digitalradioplus.com.au website. After clicking the link, the first task is to enter your postcode which gave me the following response:

    “Sorry, to be eligible to enter, you must live permanently within a Metropolitan Digital Radio Licence Area as shown by the Postcode Checker.”

    Not all is lost, just enter the Sydney postcode then fill in the form with your correct postcode.

  2. Ian says:

    Sound quality has improved, in terms of extracting more from still very limited bandwidth, however anything less than 96Kbit/s still sounds very metallic or tinny, especially at higher vocals and frequencies. Subsequently, most of the stations still sound metallic, with it being unbearable after a few hours of listening meaning I have to go back to Internet Radio for higher quality sound.

    96Kbit/s is generally regarded as the low end on Internet Radio, and this seems to be regarded as a fanciful ‘extreme high end’ on digital radio.

    I believe the reason for this is that digital multiplexers must be either very expensive, or commercially constrained in some way, meaning that stations must contend over a very limited available bandwidth.

    I doubt this will change as the business case for higher quality sound may not be strong (i.e. bigger audience) and this is a real shame because we will see what happened to digital TV – a mass abandonment of the poor quality broadcast medium in favour of higher quality Internet streaming and downloads.

    Signal robustness is not the only drawcard for broadcasting, as an Internet ‘signal’ can just as ‘robust’ too.

    If mobile 4G ever takes off with decent quotas then digital radio will have some unfortunate stiff competition and may struggle to ever take off, if bandwidth constraints are not addressed now so the medium can establish itself as a viable competitor.

    Lets hope they learn from other’s medium’s experiences with online competition, and subsequent decimation (e.g. Channel 10 being close to folding).

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