HD Radio and Conditional Access: a powerful combination


ENGINEERED FOR PROFIT – HD Radio and Conditional Access: a powerful combination
By Ray Miklius

To fully appreciate the impact that conditional access HD Radio technology will have on FM radio, we need to think back to the days before cable television. As recent as the 1970s, the entire viewing experience was summed up in three or four TV channels. If ABC, CBS, NBC or the local public station didn’t show it, it simply wasn’t television. Then, in the early 1980s, cable television began to add variety to TV programming by introducing movie and specialty channels using a form of conditional access that we’ve come to know as pay-per-view. Some of you may even recall the first major pay-per-view event, which occurred on September 16, 1981, when Sugar Ray Leonard fought Thomas "Hitman" Hearns for the Welterweight Championship. More than half of Viacom Cablevision’s viewers subscribed to the fight, and people started to give serious thought to the pay-per-view business model for television.

Of course, at the time, some disparaged the arrival of cable, claiming that the pay-per-view business model would never work. We now know that they were wrong; cable TV, and newer arrival satellite TV, are alive and well in living rooms today.

What can we learn from this brief walk through history? First and foremost is that content – good, compelling content – will always hold value. People are willing to pay for content as long as it’s relevant and it’s accessible. Cable TV caught on because it made relevant content more accessible than before. The same may be said for HD Radio broadcasting, especially now that digital HD Radio technology includes a conditional access feature. Think of it: HD Radio broadcasting offers FM listeners more program variety in much the same way that cable television offered viewers more programming choices two decades before. But, unlike early TV broadcasters, who ended up sharing their viewer audience with new entrants selling program variety, FM broadcasters can deliver new programs to listeners today on existing, licensed band space, which makes it pretty much a closed-loop opportunity for FM broadcasters.

FM stations don’t have to sit by as new competitors chip away at their market share. They don’t have to give up existing market share, either. FM broadcasters can add one or two more program channels to their Broadcast Electronics’ FM HD Radio transmissions systems without disenfranchising their current listeners. New channels are simply broadcast along with the main channel over the same licensed frequency, typically for a fraction of the original investment in radio.

Then, there’s the conditional access feature of HD Radio that recently became available as an advanced services application based on NDS RadioGuard(tm) technology-which, incidentally, is similar to the conditional access technology used by cable and satellite companies for years.

By now, you’ve heard about the usefulness of conditional access for broadcasting reading services to the seeing impaired. National Public Radio member stations have long struggled with delivering specialized programming while maintaining regular program broadcasts. Up until now, their best option was to put special programming up on a subcarrier frequency piggybacked on the FM signal.  The program was then picked up by special receivers, or SCA receivers, that cost listeners a small fortune.

That is no longer the case. Many of BE’s NPR customers are planning to implement conditional access on their BE HD Radio systems for the purpose of granting listeners access to these specialized services through commodity HD Radio receivers.

And, there are many, many other uses for conditional access that our commercial FM broadcasters tell us may be viable. A separate HD Radio channel  targeted to listeners interested in updates or more long-form broadcasts of their favorite host or show is just one example of extending the value of radio.
Conditional access of FM programming also opens up all sorts of new revenue models, from selling one-time access to a concert to opt-in listenership rights to a specialty channel sponsored by an advertiser. Whole program channels of interest to a narrow niche market may be sold as subscription-only channels, as could certain dayparts triggered by time or event.

We have the tools now, not only on the transmission end with products such as our IDi 20 multicasting unit for provisioning the bandwidth for this purpose, but also at the studio with such products as BE’s The Radio Experience. And, the good news is that listeners will be able to opt-in to these channels or special program events from the same HD Radio car or tabletop radio that they will use to tune in to their favorite FM stations on the free airways.

Conditional access offers broadcasters a new way of serving listeners or advertisers, yet doesn’t disrupt business as usual on the main program channel.

Running traffic data on conditional access radio
One exciting potential opportunity resulting from HD Radio is the leasing of channels to content providers and other companies looking for an economical, access-controlled way to send information en masse to certain devices. Prime examples are utility companies needing to feed data to workers in the field and navigational companies wanting to send information to mapping systems in automobiles.

Broadcast Electronics recently participated in a successful pilot test at WKQX-FM
(Q101), an Emmis Communications station in Chicago, in which traffic data was broadcast over an HD Radio channel using conditional access technology.
We worked very closely with iBiquity’s Joe D’Angelo, Emmis’ Patrick Berger and Paul Brenner, Vice President of Integrated Technologies, NDS’s Tom Rucktenwald and the product developers at a large navigational firm.

A portion of the HD Radio broadcast was sectioned off by BE’s HD Radio multicasting unit (IDi 20) and used to broadcast real-time traffic reports informing of roadway congestion and construction delays to in-vehicle navigational units.
The trial included encrypting the data at the radio transmitter and decrypting it at the receiver for access control, as well as testing the end-to-end system functionality and determining latency and data stability in the encrypted channel. Test drives in various multipath environments around the Chicago area showed no dropped data packets or loss of service.

The success of this proof-of-concept test is widely considered to be an important milestone. It proved the viability of broadcasters leasing unused HD Radio spectrum to third parties, who have few other options for economically sending data and information to specific destinations.
Ray is Vice President, Studio Systems for Broadcast Electronics. He can be reached at 217-224-9600 or [email protected].