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Forbes.com: Making Radio Smarter
Making Radio Smarter
Arik Hesseldahl, 10.01.02, 10:00 AM ET
Broadcast radio is going digital in more ways that one.
It's not hard to find the advertisements on TV and in magazines for the two commercial satellite-based radio services: XM Satellite Radio (nasdaq: XMSR - news - people ) and Sirius Satellite Radio (nasdaq: SIRI - news - people ). And new digital broadcasts from some stations, based on a technology developed by Ibiquity, a privately held concern backed by several publicly held media companies, are set to go live next year.
Now Motorola (nyse: MOT - news - people ) is set to get into the game with a set of chips it is selling to radio manufacturers. Motorola calls its initiative Symphony Digital Radio, and it will debut in radios that will be available to consumers in time for Christmas 2003.
Motorola's approach is simple: make the radio smarter without changing the existing signal already broadcast by some 44,000 stations around the world. The result, the company says, will be that signals in the AM, FM and shortwave bands have a longer reach and sound better without adding significant cost to the purchase price of a radio, and without adding any financial burden to broadcasters.
Symphony differs significantly from the plans of Ibiquity, which requires broadcasters to buy some new equipment to broadcast a digital signal. That signal carries the identical audio programming going out over the analog broadcast, but could also include extra information like the name of the song being played and the artist or group performing it. The company also recently bought a firm called Command Audio, which owned patents that would give radios the ability to store programming on small hard drives in much the same way that TV set-top boxes from Tivo (nasdaq: TIVO - news - people ) and SonicBlue's (nasdaq: SBLU - news - people ) ReplayTV store TV programming. The result might be instant traffic and weather when you want it.
Ibiquity is essentially an intellectual property firm that is licensing its patents to manufacturers and broadcasters in a Qualcomm-like (nasdaq: QCOM - news - people ) plan to earn royalties. It's backed by 14 major broadcasters and several other companies, including automaker Ford Motor (nyse: F - news - people ).
But there are two hurdles in Ibiquity's path. First, broadcasters have to make the initial investment to get the digital signal going. The gear to do that will cost about $75,000, which isn't significant for major broadcasters in major markets. Nine stations around the U.S. will be broadcasting Ibiquity-licensed digital signals by early 2003.
The other hurdle is the added cost to consumers, who would have to shell out about $100 extra for digital-capable receivers. Since consumers are accustomed to cheap radios, that's not going to happen without some convincing.
Motorola's Symphony requires no investment by broadcasters. And it says the retail price of the radios should be "about the same," which only time will prove. But its technical claims are certainly interesting.
Among them is the ability to pick up signals that a traditional FM radio wouldn't otherwise be able to get, meaning that you can hear your favorite station from farther away than before.
Motorola's chips are also programmed with algorithms to reduce noise and interference. This includes the interference that comes from two stations that are broadcasting on frequencies that are too close together and the kind of interference that comes from driving in the mountains or near tall buildings. The system can also use two antennas to receive the same signal twice and dynamically meld the two together into a stronger signal.
There's also the ability to play programming from two sources at once. Imagine a radio that can play one station in the front seat for the parents and a second one in the backseat for the kids. Of course, the kids would likely have to use headphones.
Motorola hasn't said who among the scores of consumer electronics manufacturers in the radio business is interested in deploying the chips in its next generation of receivers. But it does say we can expect to see them hitting the market by the end of 2003.
Software. Speaking. Solutions. Since 1992.
(Sony SAT-T60 DirecTiVo, 72 hours)
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