New Apps, Receivers & Tests in digital radio
Kevin Ryan evaluates another BBC radio app, provides updates on some new DAB and DRM receivers
Kevin Ryan evaluates another BBC radio app, provides updates on some new DAB and DRM receivers and considers reports on the DRM format from India and South Africa.
The BBC released another app for Amazon, Apple and Google devices, called BBC Sounds. I downloaded it on Android and – after telling it my location, age and gender – I began exploring what it had to offer.
The BBC said they needed this data to “tailor their recommendations”. Most BBC stations are available on the app. I did notice the absence of the local opt-out BBC Solent for Dorset, which is available on Freeview.
The stations are arranged in an arc-shaped arrangement, which you swipe to move.
There is a link to All Stations (Fig. 1); the link to the podcasts is under My Sounds.
It seems that BBC Sounds will eventually replace the BBC iPlayer Radio app as the app to use for all BBC audio content but there is no timeframe for this. The app will track what you listen to and, after a period of use, recommend other content to you, based on your listening preferences. The content will be either channel- or genre-based. When you start out, however, you will just get general recommendations.
I am not sure how often you have to use the app or for how long you have to listen before you receive your own recommendations about more programmes you might enjoy. I tend to be a ‘linear’ listener, especially to the BBC World Service, Radio 4 and Radio 5.
A negative point for me is that there isn’t a News category, as the BBC probably assumes (incorrectly, in my opinion) that younger people are not interested in it.
Also, I can’t find anything from the BBC World Service, which makes some of the best BBC programmes.
The press release claims that there are over 80,000 hours of BBC audio available and that this will only grow, so this should help to bring to the surface some shows you wouldn't have necessarily found before.
The app has Podcasts and Radio Highlights sections, where recommendations from the BBC appear.
It's all curated content and is based around different genres like Real Life Stories and Quite Interesting.
Reading the trade press, BBC Sounds looks like it is yet another response from the BBC to try to hang onto the younger audience. The BBC plans to create more new shows aimed at this audience segment.
DAB Network Planning
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) updated its document on planning DAB networks. It is a technical document and makes for some ‘heavy’ reading but it contains lots of details on receivers and allocating bit-rates to the sub-channels in DAB and DAB+ multiplexes that I found very interesting.
There is a fascinating section on coverage issues, introducing some new terminology, such as ‘clutter height’. This is the typical height of objects (trees and buildings for example) that can block radio signals.
Ideally, you need to position an external antenna above that height. In the UK, the values are 18m for urban environments; this drops to 6m for rural locations.
New Digital Receivers
John Lewis stocks a number of its ‘own-brand’, ‘brick-type’, radios. I recently spotted three new digital radios that looked a lot more interesting.
The most versatile one is the Cello (Fig. 2), a Hi-Fi music system, DAB+, FM, Internet radio, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in a single unit.
It also offers an auxiliary input, a line output and a network connection.
At the time of writing, it was sold out online but there are still units in the high street stores.
The cheaper model (£50 cheaper at £149) does not have the CD player or the wired network connection and delivers less power to speakers.
The third model of note is the Aria, costing £89. This is just a DAB+ radio in a speaker-size enclosure.
All units have wood finishes.
India DRM Update
An update on All India Radio’s deployment of DRM and its uptake in the country appeared on most of the usual radio websites. The interesting statistics are that the domestic services are using DRM regularly on their 35 medium wave transmitters.
Two of them are DRM-only. Twenty-five services are changing from simulcast (AM and DRM) to DRM-only, for just an hour a day. Those of us who monitor DRM transmissions, know that AIR’s external services dropped all their DRM services, both on short wave and medium wave, during 2018. There were some short tests in July of two new 100kW units in Delhi, but they only lasted for a couple of hours.
There is a detailed list of DRM transmitters on the India pages of the DRM website. Look under Transmissions, to find the link to the current list of Medium Wave transmissions.
Nautel, the main contractor, has information on this major project. If you should wish to see a map of where all the transmitters are located, you can follow the link on their Building for a Billion web page.
I recommend that you also read some of the newsletters produced by both the general DRM team and in the context of the chapter on India. There is a lot of information regarding the worldwide interest in DRM.
The full report, containing a lot more information on the second phase of the DRM roll-out, can be accessed and followed via the DRM website.
The report referred to in the previous section included a section on DRM receivers.
An interesting fact was that later this year, a million cars (mainly from Hyundai, Mahindra and Suzuki) are supposed to have DRM-capable radios fitted in them.
You have to ask, however: Just what is the problem in using the same chipsets and designs to make standalone receivers? Perhaps the units are still too expensive, but that cost doesn’t add much to the overall cost of a car. The report says there is some activity there as well, but I will let you make up your own mind, after exploring these links.
In China meanwhile, Gospell has the GR-216 DRM receiver available to buy – supposedly now. The report implies that the GR-216 can receive DRM signals in the AM and VHF bands but I don’t think it receives DRM+.
Gospell is also developing a DRM receiver dongle, GR-227 (Fig. 3), which can be plugged into existing audio systems, car USB ports or in-car auxiliary inputs to receive DRM signals.
Apparently, it works best on an Android-powered car stereo.
Overall, I am not sure that this is a practical device
DRM+ Test South Africa
For once, this was a DRM+ (or DRM 120, as it is also known) test with a difference, which produced a bit of different thinking and a desire to go forward with the technology. DRM 30, the DRM version for AM, was tested in 2014/2015 but nothing really came of it.
The test was facilitated by the Westbury Community Development Centre Trust (WECODEC). The trust holds an FM licence for 97.2MHz, a community radio station frequency I am unable to find listed in the WRTH 2018. The test involved the BBC World Service for content, as well as the Fraunhofer Institute, which is well-known for creating solutions for digital radio.
The objective of the test was to see whether a DRM+ signal could be inserted into some ‘dead’ spectrum between existing FM signals.
The DRM+ signal transmitted on 101.25MHz was flanked by two very strong FM signals on 101.0 and 101.5MHz, which carried the Radio Sonder Grense programme.
The rationale behind the test is spectrum efficiently. The pressure is coming from the area of digital television. We know that the latter is being squeezed in the UK by the mobile telephone industry’s demands for more frequencies in the UHF band.
In one scenario, DTT could be forced back into Band III, the home of DAB, thus restricting expansion.
South Africa started tests of DAB about ten years ago, but a trial-multiplex is currently off the air, while a new licence application is considered.
A clever solution to this issue would be to ‘interleave’ digital radio signals. I think only DRM+ (with a 96kHz bandwidth) could squeeze into any available space between existing FM signals.
The UK did this in the early days of digital terrestrial television when DTT co-existed with analogue services.
A DRM+ signal can carry four audio or data streams in this multiplex.
The second objective of the test was to open up Band I for digital radio transmissions, in which the portion between 63 and 66MHz is reserved for broadcasting.
The Westbury Community Development Centre (WECODEC) secured permission to broadcast a DRM+ signal on 64MHz. Now, an extension to the licence is required for the group to move forward with its plans.
It is, perhaps, needless to say that the company has had problems finding transmission equipment for that frequency. Planners knew they would run into the issue of not having any receivers, so they built their own.
The receiver in question is a retro-style radio in a wooden cabinet and that is for some good reasons. Building these devices will give employment to the local community. The radios will be deployed in public spaces such as information kiosks. I am not sure what is inside the cabinet, but it must have a PC and an SDR receiver.
The prototype receiver was exhibited at the 2017 IBC event and received an award for innovation from the DRM Consortium (Fig. 4)
In addition to three radio services, there will be an information channel, broadcasting news on weather, farming matters, traffic, jobs, food, and dining.
I think this group is to be applauded for their innovation and for actually having a plan to move forward.
I wish them every success. Hopefully, their ideas won’t sink because of bureaucracy or due to some preconception that DAB is the ‘only way forward’.
The final bit of DRM news this month is that Radio New Zealand International has quickly repaired its DRM-capable transmitter, following a capacitor failure. When their old AM transmitter failed, RNZI reduced its DRM service (a feeder-service for local re-broadcasting in the Pacific Islands) to just four hours per day (16.51 to 20.50 UTC from Sunday to Friday). Reception on 9760kHz is rare, but possible, in Europe.
Stations use purpose-built DRM receivers.
I recently saw a report stating that Cyber Gold London had launched on DAB+ here and – a few days later –
in the Netherlands. I found it (after a while) on the Surrey-North Sussex multiplex on channel 10C.
The new station joins Cyber Hot Hits.
There is also Cyber Rock, just in case the ‘nostalgia’ of offshore pirates is not for you.
The website stated that the station launched on the Cambridge Minimux in May. However, judging from my short listening periods, this must have been just a short-lived test. My instinct is that this station will be fairly transitory overall, so enjoy it while you can.
Judging from my short periods of listening, I think that it is another ‘oldies’ station with occasional references to being on a (fictitious) radio ship.
Sky is a domestic satellite system and carries radio signals just for Great Britain and Ireland. Eutelsat says that 1,100 radio stations are broadcasting on their 38 satellites.
Nevertheless, not all beams will provide coverage for the UK.
The cluster at 13oE has many radio stations and enthusiasts have used a sky mini-dish to pick them up.
There are probably more details of radio services than you can digest at the Lyngsat website (Fig.7).
If you are after receiving radio signals from a particular region or direction, you might need to involve a professional installer.
I have a camping dish, a receiver and LNB stored away somewhere in the loft and I think that I now have a nice project for the autumn to check out the radio stations on Eutelsat 13.
DAB in Cars
The EU is putting forward plans to force manufacturers to install DAB/DAB+ as standard in new cars. These radios would also have to include FM. This meets the recently-updated specification for portable radios.
Of course, this might be unwelcome news for AM listeners. As the take-up of the DAB format spreads more widely, more AM stations are at risk. In Belgium, the French-language service RTBF International on medium wave (621kHz) will be closed, as the new DAB+ launches in the French-speaking region.
Personally, I think there should be AM, FM and DAB+ tuners included in all radios for the foreseeable future.
I would also love them to have DRM+ for a possible digitization of FM but this is unlikely to happen.
Digital radio is advancing on several fronts. However, I am a little concerned about the news that the BBC affords such high priority to audio and radio apps. Where the BBC leads, others will, inevitably, follow.
Is DAB now done and dusted in the UK? I think many readers would disagree.
DRM is in one of its upbeat phases. Nevertheless, once again, I fear that the energy might fade away, without us seeing that long-promised receiver.
This article was featured in the September 2018 issue of Radio User