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Think Digital not Analogue

The radio industry’s third and worst problem is that it tried to do digital radio with an analogue mindset.

Everybody who understands information technology knows that it makes exponential progress, and your PCs and phones double in power every couple of years. In fact, they have become roughly a billion times more powerful in the past 25 years, during which time we’ve gone from 1MB floppies in hulking desktop PCs to school kids having 32GB cards in their far more powerful mobile phones.

That kind of thing never happens in the analogue world. Ships don’t sail a billion times faster than they did a thousand years ago. The Olympic record for the 100m sprint is never going to fall to less than a second. Analogue progress isn’t exponential, it’s very slow.

Unfortunately, in the radio world, analogue thinking prevails. If FM radio broadcasting worked well in 1950, it should work pretty much as well 50 or even 100 years later. But designing a digital radio system requires digital thinking. That includes predicting regular increases in processing power that allow for improvements in digital encoding and decoding, and the use of more efficient algorithms.

In sum, it should have been obvious that MP2 audio wasn’t going to be the ultimate option for the next 50 years, so the DAB radio standard had to include an upgrade path. It didn’t.

Those of us who buy digital products also know that while we can often upgrade them, we are also prepared to scrap them and buy new ones. We know that a PC probably won’t last more than five years, and a mobile phone might last two or three years. So why does the radio industry appear to think that digital radios should last 10 or 25 years or even longer?

I’m not against digital radio in principle, though I’m critical of DAB because the sound quality is worse than FM when it should be better.

But what really bothers me is the crazy idea of selling us a DAB system designed 25 years ago, without clearly explaining how it’s going to cope with upgrades for the next 25 years. Sorry, I’m not buying that.

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