While the CRTC is engaging in a wide-ranging review of television policy, it’s also in the process of reviewing certain policies when it comes to radio. Most of them are about the regulatory process itself, such as how to handle applications for new stations in small markets, or how to ensure stations comply with their licenses, or how to distinguish national and local advertising.
But perhaps the most interesting topic for discussion is whether Canada should adopt HD Radio. The technology, not to be confused with high-definition television, is widely used in the United States, and replaces analog AM and FM signals with hybrid analog-digital ones (it can also be used in all-digital mode, but it’s the hybrid version that has the most appeal). Analog receivers continue to hear the stations, but people with HD Radio receivers can get a digital version of the station’s audio, which may be of higher quality or just devoid of any noise, as well as metadata (like the name of the song that’s playing) and audio subchannels, similar to subchannels offered by some digital television stations. It can also transmit other information like weather and traffic updates and even listings of gas station prices.
The sad history of DAB
This isn’t the first time that digital radio has been proposed in Canada to augment and eventually replace AM and FM. In 1995, the CRTC set up a framework for licensing digital radio stations, and in 1999 Digital Audio Broadcasting (or Digital Radio Broadcasting) launched in Canada. DAB stations transmitted on frequencies in the 1452-1492 MHz range, far above the FM broadcast band. These signals didn’t have as much range, but with each channel being 1.5 MHz wide, there was a lot of bandwidth to play with. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters and some private and public stations embraced the new technology and spent a lot of money setting up transmitters.
Unfortunately, DAB didn’t take off in Canada, mainly because of the scarcity of receivers. The United States wasn’t using DAB, so there weren’t many new cars or new radios being put on store shelves that had support for it. By 2010, broadcasters gave up on the technology, and the CRTC officially killed it in 2012, refusing to renew any licenses beyond that date.
So you can imagine how reluctant some broadcasters might be to jump into another digital radio scheme.
Pros and cons of HD Radio
HD Radio’s main advantage is that it’s the technology used in the United States. It uses the same frequency spectrum as analog, and with its hybrid mode the analog signal can remain for people with analog receivers.
But there are a lot of downsides too. Like DAB, it’s expensive to set up and it requires new transmitters and new receivers. It also increases interference, particularly on adjacent frequencies. The format is also proprietary, owned by a company called iBiquity.
What about the availability of receivers, which could be the make-or-break for this new technology?
The Consumer Electronic Marketers of Canada, an industry association, tells the CRTC in a submission that HD Radios represented 15% of FM radios sold in Canada in 2012, up from 5.5% in 2011. In cars, where a lot of people listen to their radio, the group says that 45% of vehicle models for sale here offer HD Radio, though its statistics are based on “nameplates that offer HD Radio technology” and might not represent the actual number of consumer vehicles capable of receiving HD Radio.
Nevertheless, there’s clearly a significant number of receivers available in this country for a technology that hasn’t formally been adopted here yet.
One of the big advantages of HD Radio is that in addition to providing a high-quality feed of the station’s audio, the digital signal can encode separate audio feeds, which could be entirely different or related services. Some radio stations use this in the U.S. to provide specialized alternative programming that’s not available on analog radio. A niche format like jazz could find a home on HD Radio that it couldn’t on analog AM or FM. Though the most popular use for subchannels seems to be rebroadcasting sister stations in areas where they can’t be received well over the air.
In Canada, some analog FM radio stations already multiplex their signals using Subsidiary Communications Multiplex Operation, an analog technology that encodes audio signals on audio frequencies above those audible by humans. This has been used for services like Radio Moyen Orient (before it got a licence to broadcast on 1450 AM) and Radio Humsafar (which is still waiting for a decision on an application for 1610 AM). Stations such as CKUT-FM, CISM-FM and CIRA-FM in Montreal have gotten CRTC approval for SCMO channels for niche services.
SCMO also requires special receivers, and in fact many broadcasters that use the technology make money by selling the radios that people can use to receive them. It’s particularly popular among ethnic broadcasters serving groups that don’t hear much broadcasting in their own language on AM or FM ethnic stations.
HD Radio, if implemented, would likely be used for similar reasons.
Tests in progress
According to the CRTC, three radio stations are currently experimenting with HD Radio with the commission’s blessing:
- CJSA-FM, a multilingual station in Toronto owned by Canadian Multicultural Radio. It proposed in December 2012 to offer a channel with Tamil programming, and another serving First Nations.
- CFMS-FM, a station in Markham, Ont., which offers a mix of English and third-language programming. It proposed to use subchannels to offer time-delayed programming so people who want to listen to programs that air only at certain times of the day can have more opportunities to tune in when they want.
- CING-FM, an adult contemporary music station in Hamilton owned by Corus. Corus conducted detailed technical tests, and its submission includes analysis of interference, as well as listener feedback (even though it never publicly announced it was using HD Radio). Its tests included data broadcasts that give weather, traffic and gas price data for the greater Toronto area, from Hamilton to Barrie.
The CRTC is accepting public comments about a possible implementation of HD Radio and other matters concerning radio. The deadline had been set for today, but was extended two weeks to Jan. 30. Comments can be submitted here. Note that all comments, including contact information submitted with them, are part of the public record.
UPDATE (Oct. 5, 2015): Corus’s CING-FM is now publicizing its HD Radio service. Its second digital channel carries Toronto’s AM640 (CFMJ), and Corus is encouraging Toronto listeners to tune in to the 100kW Hamilton station to hear the Toronto news-talk station with better quality.