I Love Digital Radio
Sunday night, sitting at my computer in my study listening to the radio, or rather, IP (Internet Protocol) music from last.fm through my computer's speakers. It got me thinking about digital radio in general. It's been a mixed couple of weeks for digital radio - or DAB, to be precise: the delivery of radio via the traditional means, airwaves and aerials, but digitally encoded.
On the one hand, the Germans announced a review of their support for DAB, and the UK commercial players are likewise voicing concerns about the technology.
On the other hand, Natalie Schwarz (Chairman of 4Digital Radio) has written a rallying call in the Guardian "Why we must stick with digital Radio" and an email from our director of radio Jenny Abramsky last week spoke of the successes of our digital radio in general (now accounting for 10% of all radio listening in the UK) and of the BBC's digital portfolio in particular, with 6Music and BBC 7 putting on many thousands of new listeners in the last quarter.
The BBC faces some tough decisions in the coming years about how much money we put into different distribution technologies. I receive Radio 1 into my house via FM, IP, DAB, DTT, 3G, Digital Satellite, and if you include the fabulous Live Lounge, on CD. Are all these sustainable?
There are some, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer among the most famous, who think that everything will tend towards IP - delivery over the internet. Perhaps surprisingly, I disagree.
The huge sunk cost in the hundreds of DAB masts up and down the country - and therefore the relatively cheap cost of delivery (providing that spectrum supply is carefully managed) - is a compelling enough argument for believing that DAB will be with us for a while yet. (By the same logic, I believe that DTT digital TV - Freeview - will live alongside Iptv for many many years).
But even putting this infrastructure point to one side, and ignoring the basic better economics of sending one signal to everyone (which might be undermined if everyone wants personal radio experience â la last.fm), there are even stronger benefits of DAB radio over the emerging alternative, internet radio.
These benefits are quality, reliability, and ease of use. Time and time again these basics are forgotten in the headlong pursuit of new features and functionality. I have an IP radio in my kitchen, and a DAB radio in my bedroom. The IP radio connects wirelessly via my broadband router out to the internet and brings back literally tens of thousands of radio stations.
As a result, I choose to listen to Riviera Radio from Monaco - an English language station with a playlist somewhere between Radio 1 and Magic (alright, I'm 42) - and BBC news on the hour, with minimal DJ interference. In short, my perfect radio station. I also use the IP radio to listen, on-demand, on Sunday morning, to Jonathan Ross's Saturday morning Radio 2 show. The DAB radio in the bedroom I use for Radio 4, and occasionally for BBC 7.
So IP wins hands down, right? Wrong.
The quality of the IP stream is often woeful. It frequently buffers, meaning I hear nothing for seconds or even minutes on end. It frequently loses the wireless connection, and sometimes gets confused and wants the WEPP key again. I switch it off and on again. About once a day. By contrast the DAB radio just works. Press the button, and on it comes: excellent quality; reasonable range of choice; no bother.
My biggest beef with DAB is that, for some reason I still can't fathom, a new technology has been clothed in old boxes. A bit of retro I don't mind, but old fuddy-duddy-looking leather clad wirelesses, and Dualit Toaster-like DAB receivers is in my opinion not going to take DAB mainstream.
Given that DAB has quality and simplicity sorted, where does it go from here? The biggest benefit of DAB going forward should still be its ease of use, and range of stations, but also its clear benefits over FM. To make the most of these benefits, I want a DAB set with a big touch-screen, with a big on-screen programme guide, showing the stations, the shows on those stations, and the tracks currently playing on those shows. All possible on DAB (and indeed the first big screen DAB sets are starting to come on to the market).
I want this big screen to show me signal strength, news feeds, and the time. I want it to show me programmes coming up, to allow me to bookmark and record programmes, to set up simple searches (scan all stations, and record me any interviews with Goldfrapp, and perhaps provide information about release dates of her upcoming album).
I want DAB to show me weather, traffic and travel information graphically, on the same nice big screen, but unlike IP, reliably, simply, without installation and configuration. It's all possible: I've seen it working from our development teams and research engineers. I want DAB to use its metadata - the information about the programmes - to differentiate itself from FM, which is surely its biggest competitor, rather than from IP. I want DAB to look like a product of the future, not the past.
We can and should do more at the Beeb to work with the industry to innovate around DAB. And like DTT television, it is possible that hybrid boxes (DAB and IP), offering the simplicity and reliability of broadcast with the range and on-demand benefits of IP will become the standard (with the ability to track listening habits and personalise your experience).
These are my personal views, and I'd welcome a debate about this to help inform the medium- and long-term technology decisions we must make at the BBC.
Ashley Highfield is Divisional Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.