The tangled web

Digital radio test broadcasts began in 2003, and six years later this  May, Australians living in metropolitan areas will be able to tune in to the country’s first full-time digital radio transmissions. These will be provided by the commercial networks, with the national broadcasters due to come on board in August. Regional Australia, again, gets a bad deal, with no time line yet for switch-on.

The slow birth of digital radio will be ameliorated by the higher quality audio and greater programming choice it promises, the population coverage it will provide, and the ready availability and affordability of hardware with which to receive it. These elements haven’t come together for a digital radio switch-on in any other market in the world, and the joint effort of broadcasters, retailers and hardware suppliers will give the technology a kick along it hasn’t enjoyed in international markets. It will certainly give the technology a better leg up than digital TV ever had – it’s still gaining traction eight years after switch-on.

The only concurrent medium – it allows you to do other things while listening to it – radio is a part of just about everybody’s lives. There are an estimated four-five radio devices in every household in Australia, plus one in every car on the road. But is this enough to make people want it?

The premium pricing of digital radios will be a barrier to our take-up of the technology in the short term, of course, but the real key to the technology’s success lies with the broadcasters.

As with all new technology, content is key, and without compelling, unique programming there will be little to coax consumers across. The commercial networks are keeping their plans close to their chest in the lead-up to launch, but it’s what the ABC and SBS will offer that interests us most.

With rich mines of website content already complementing their current broadcast programming, the national broadcasts can really create some excitement when they come online later in the year. We’ll keep you up to date with programming developments from all the broadcasters in Home Entertainment and on the website over the coming months.

The internet ‘wireless’

Internet radio, of course, can deliver equivalent sound quality to digital radio, as well as provide much greater variety of programming. Unlike terrestrial radio broadcasting, internet radio allows you to listen to your favourite stations from wherever you can get online, be it Mumbai, London or Belize city. Internet radio devices have become easier to use in the last couple of years too, and in five years or so, just about every electronics device – TV, mobile phone, Blu-ray player, fridge – will be able to connect with the internet and, potentially, perform as an internet radio.

As a challenger to digital radio, then, it has legs, but the convenience of digital radio devices will see them as the preferred option for many, especially when it comes to incar use. Mobile internet is very much an imperfect technology – especially when the receiving device is hurtling along rather than sitting still – and offered by a limited number of telcos that don’t provide an all-you-can-eat data plan. Until the streaming of radio stations (and other data) to your car, mobile phone or every room of the house becomes a known monthly cost, internet radio will be prohibitively expensive compared to free-to-air digital radio.

Net TV

The internet is posing an interesting challenge to traditional broadcasters too, with the 2009 range of products from the big name manufacturers sporting some facility for directly accessing the content riches of the web.

Forthcoming Blu-ray players and televisions from Panasonic and will LG will connect via cable to the Net to bring YouTube straight to your TV, with navigation provided from the remote control. Panasonic’s Viera Cast products add access to Google’s Picasa web gallery, allowing you to view photos on the big screen, and there are plans to further expand its Web offerings in this area. In the US and Europe, for example, Viera Cast allows on-demand movie downloads from Amazon, and video streams from Eurosport and Bloomberg.

This trend is mirrored by Samsung, some of whose forthcoming range of web-connected tellies come preloaded with widgets that provide access to popular Yahoo sites such as Twitter and Flickr. More widgets are being made available for download via Yahoo’s Widget Gallery, which is a bit like Apple’s App store, and these are able to be accessed free by any device supporting the Yahoo Widget Engine, not just Samsung TVs.

While a virtual keyboard makes for slow and clunky navigation around the site once its up on the big screen, the Yahoo widget system wins points for working simultaneously the TV programming. This means you don’t have to turn off the live broadcast to check the weather, browse Facebook or catch some video on breaking news.

More and more, our notebooks and 3G phones are sharing couch space in the living room with the universal learning remote. Televisions with new networking smarts are an acknowledgment that we are multi-tasking when we should be vegging out in front of the idiot box. And as the IQ of the humble TV continues to rise, that kind of inappropriate name-calling might even disappear.