Digital has not killed the radio frequency in Canada — yet
As Norway moves to eliminate FM, 14 radio stations experimenting with HD Radio here
Norway may be switching off its FM radio network in favour of digital but don't expect the same type of tune-out to happen in Canada any time soon.
The shift to digital radio technology — touted for its clearer sound and potential for more channels — is taking place at a much slower, wait-and-see pace here, say broadcasters and industry analysts.
That's not to say we haven't already tried. During the late '90s and 2000s, Canada experimented with the digital audio broadcasting (DAB) model that Norway will shift to this week — and it was a flop.
Duff Roman was instrumental in trying to make DAB a success here as president of Digital Radio Rollout Inc., a consortium of private and public broadcasters, but ultimately couldn't woo the Americans to follow.
They were already working on adopting HD Radio, another type of digital radio technology that's now slowly seeping its way into Canada. It is developed by a private company and delivers digital versions of the audio from FM stations via a special receiver.
Digital receivers can cost hundreds of dollars and inability to convince consumers to buy into a new system was part of the reason that DAB stalled.
Roman said he is disappointed because he thought DAB was the superior model.
"It's sort of like Beta and VHS," he said of the difference. "The best system didn't win."
"I'm over it now … I think it will work as sort of an upgrade."
14 Canadian stations testing out HD Radio
The CRTC stopped renewing DAB licenses after 2012. Now, it oversees 14 Canadian stations who have started experimenting with HD Radio in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and a few other cities.
These stations have largely been using it as a way to simulcast their AM talk radio stations with less fuzz and clearer audio.
It's not like internet radio, which is streamed off the internet, or satellite radio, which uses a particular frequency and has a wider footprint. Instead, HD Radio is broadcast in a local market and can only be heard via a HD receiver.
"It allows a radio station to use its analogue FM frequency to broadcast multiple digital audio signals on the [same] frequency," CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao explained in an email.
She said the number of broadcasters adopting it remains small.
"Presently there are no public proceedings or applications before the CRTC related to this issue, nor is it under discussion."
Corus Entertainment has been testing out HD Radio in three of its markets — New Westminster, B.C., Hamilton and Calgary.
But Chris Sisam, vice-president of Corus Radio East, said widespread adoption is still a long way off.
"Really, we're just dipping our toe in the water," he said. "For us, it's just a better way of delivering an AM signal."
Sisam said the number of people listening to the stations via HD Radio remains small — and that's just anecdotal. He said there is no way of measuring those who are listening via traditional FM radio separately from those listening by HD Radio.
Bell Media and Rogers Media, two of the other major Canadian broadcasters, are also experimenting with HD Radio in a few large markets. CBC is running a pilot project with HD Radio in Toronto for its French-radio service.
"At this time, we have no plan to abandon FM radio, but we are starting to explore digital technologies for radio broadcasting," CBC spokeswoman Emma Bédard said in an email.
"CBC/Radio-Canada supports HD Radio as a voluntary North American digital radio standard. As both U.S. and Mexican radio broadcasters have endorsed this standard, this will help ensure the widespread availability of receivers to North American radio audiences."
But will it catch on?
When it comes to digital radio, America is much further along.
There are around 4,000 stations using HD Radio technology in the U.S. and an HD Radio receiver has become a common feature that's built into new cars. They are being installed with some new car models in Canada, but owning an HD Radio receiver is still pretty rare here.
"We don't have the reception system available," Sisam said. "We could deliver [programming on HD Radio], but no one could receive it."
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David Bray, president of the radio consulting firm Bray and Partners, thinks there is a "real possibility" that HD Radio might not catch on here.
"You still face the challenge of getting receivers out there," said Bray, who was also involved with the push for Canada to adopt DAB. "That's a huge practical problem."
He thinks the better sound and promise of more channels might not be enough of an incentive for people to go out and buy one.
"How are you going to get the public on board? It's really not that easy," he said, comparing it to DAB's struggles. "Apathy is the insurmountable problem."
Bray suggests creating some unique programming that's only available on HD Radio, similar to what some speciality satellite radio channels offer.
"Digital radio is almost certainly the future, but in what incarnation I'm not sure."