Can Mobile Operators Save DAB?
By Steve Wallage, Tue Apr 23 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Digital radio has been a major headache for the broadcasting industry. Some are hoping that the mobile operators can come in and save the day. DAB will have interesting opportunities for the operators, but not in the ways currently perceived.

DAB is a three letter acronym, and this is not the only similarity with WAP. The term has been subjected to much derision as demand has not materialized, prices remain far too high (at least $400) for mass market appeal, and teething problems have multiplied. For broadcasters, digital radio has led to high costs and complex integration. Broadcasting bulletin boards are besieged with ideas to change the name, and the wags have already christened it 'Dreary Alphanumeric Bits'.

It shouldn't have been like this. The idea of digital radio was to transform the experience of consumers and further increase the popularity and richness of the medium. Already, estimates suggest that 90% of UK consumers listen to broadcast radio at some point every week. The enhancement was not just in quality but in the ability to provide other services initially basic text information but potentially more personalized and richer services.

DAB, Digital Audio Broadcasting, receivers are just coming onto the market offering initially the basic text services. They are based on MPEG and COFDM (Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex). Broadcasters are desperate to migrate their audience to the new technology, but have little faith given the lack of early adoption and killer applications (with no comparison to 3G intended). They have jumped on the idea of working with the mobile operators and handset manufacturers to promote the technology.

The mobile concerns

The mobile operators and handset manufacturers have not exactly welcomed the overtures of the radio broadcasters with open arms. They have pointed out a number of concerns.

The biggest concern is the cost, impact on the battery and integration challenge of adding a DAB chipset and spectrum to the mobile handset. Exact figures are difficult to establish, but there has been suggestions that the impact is significant. This has been particularly true as the DAB market remains immature, and thus economies of scale have not kicked in.

An almost equal concern is that of prioritisation. In moving towards the next generation of mobile services, operators and manufacturers have a plethora of new technologies and services vying for their attention. Digital radio, currently a failure in its own right, does not easily jump in front of the mobile companies as the great revenue opportunity.

Other concerns include such areas as competition, regulation and standards. For the mobile operators, working with the radio broadcasters threatens their own margins, customer ownership and branding. There are fears that regulators may get involved, and indeed concerns about how broadcast spectrum maybe used given current restrictions. Broadcast regulation is typically administered by a different national regulatory body to telecommunications, thus adding further complexity. A further concern is the future success of DAB, given the availability of other digital radio standards and its current lack of success in the US.

The carrot of capacity

One of the other trump cards of the radio broadcasters has been capacity. In the UK, one of the forerunners of digital radio, the BBC digital network already covers 65% of the UK population, and this figure will rise to around 80% by the end of 2003. By the start of 2003, each multiplex is expected to be able to offer 128kbit/s for 24 hours a day.

Being broadcast data, this has the great advantage of not being diminished by other users that is, it is not shared bandwidth. It also is unaffected by the mobility of the device for example, while on a speeding train one should still be able to receive the full bandwidth.

Yet, mobile operators can still point to the fact that most of the spare capacity of the radio broadcasters is available at night hardly the prime time for mobile users. There are still the regulatory concerns over the use of the spectrum, and 3G should certainly offer greater speeds.

The real carrot of DAB is as a point-multipoint solution. Whereas mobile networks are point-point, DAB 'datacasting' can be a very effective way of providing data to multiple users. DAB can also be run over an IP network. There is even the possibility of using DAB to set up something akin to a virtual private network (VPN) to transmit and receive content.

The opportunity lies in using DAB in conjunction with the mobile network. In fact, some possible applications could see DAB replace 802.11 as a more cost-effective way of transmitting small amounts of data in certain environments.

Potential applications

Many operators are looking at DAB in different guises, but are still unwilling to reveal their thinking. Surprisingly, given the faster development of digital radio in the UK, the mobile innovators in DAB seem to be in Germany and Scandinavia.

Vodafone Germany are exploring the use of DAB for transmitting data to point of sale (PoS) terminals. They are also looking at DAB as a platform for other m-commerce applications. Some startups, such as Radioscape in the UK, have been more open about their efforts to work with the operators using their QuickDAB solution.

The obvious applications for DAB are to distribute content. For example, using DAB, rather than SMS, for operators to provide messages to subscribers. Other content, such as advertising and content, would also be a natural option. Consumers responding to adverts could use the mobile network, whether by voice or data. Going forward, DAB has also been trialled for broadcasting MP3 files.

One good example is the attractions of DAB are for field service engineers and software upgrades and patches. DAB would be a far more efficient way to distribute such data, a requirement that will become far more crucial as business-critical mobile applications develop.

One of the drivers of DAB could be the MVNOs, who have no requirement to utilise the 3G networks. They can make the decision on network based on purely commercial grounds rather than any sense of loyalty.

Not quite convergence

Much of the thinking about DAB is in its early days, and progress will be fairly slow. Operators will need to be careful in considering the advantages and drawbacks of using DAB. For the handset manufacturers, it is further cost and complexity. Early applications are likely to be in niche areas, such as in the PoS terminals.

The two further question marks will be the battery time and the quality of service (QoS) needs. As the mobile terminal evolves into the true multimedia terminal, there will be many additional demands on the battery. DAB is probably no worse than say a MP3 player, but will still have to justify the investment.

The QoS and traffic prioritisation requirement for streamed data on DAB will not be able to be satisfied by GPRS, and will need 3G networks. This will also create further delays in implementation.

DAB will be used by mobile operators for certain applications. But it will be done quietly and invisibly to the user. It will be used where it is the most cost-effective way to provide m-commerce and mobile content.

The use of DAB, and the ability to listen digital radio using a mobile device, will not represent a great convergence between the mobile and radio industries. Instead, it will be another step towards the mobile dream of being the device for commerce, content and communications.

Steve Wallage works and writes for the451. Steve has more than 13 years of experience as a technology analyst specializing in telecommunications.