Wi-Fi, Wi-Max and the Radio

Often when I talk about DAB Digital Radio, people bring up the internet and ask “well, won’t it all be over from DAB soon?”.

The things I generally say in response, are:
1. I think it’s quite surprising that even though Broadband has 50% penetration and it’s pretty much standard in offices, radio listening on-line is still amazingly low. And this is with there being a million-odd radio stations and pretty much all of the UK’s analogue stations too. Plus the majority of radio listening is at home and work (not on the move). So, really, it should be doing much better online.
2. People like listening to radio on radio-like devices. Simplicity is one of the key reasons radio has so much consumption. It’s almost like a utility, you open the tap and in it flows. Internet radio is still a bit complicated/a hassle to use.
3. People are overwhelmed by choice. They want to be able to recognise and find the stations that they want to listen to.
4. Mobile internet (at the moment) is still quite expensive/a bit rubbish so listening on the move isn’t a great experience.
5. Internet radio is expensive for operators, the more listeners they have the more money they have to pay – this is something very different to broadcast – where it costs the same if you have one listener or a million.
6. DAB solves most of listeners problems with the radio. It replicates all the places you listen to the radio, it has loads of stations that you know and another medium selection of specialist ones. It has some of the highest appreciation scores of any consumer electronics device.
7. Even with a fraction of broadband penetration it generates over 8% of all UK radio listening.

However, the world is changing, so perhaps internet radio listening figures and use will change.

Devices like the iPhone have user interfaces and internet connectivity that doesn’t penalise data use. The move to WiFi at home means that people are more comfortable having a variety of devices that use the connection. With more sophisticated use of the internet, people are also more comfortable seeking out specific content that interests them. So maybe internet radio’s pathetic 1.8% share of listening (whilst DAB is 8.6%ish) will grow.

There is also the emergence of WiMax. Basically it broadcasts broadband through the air to boxes in your house, these are usually connected to your router and then you use regular WiFi to access and surf. It also means that you don’t need a phone line as that bit comes through the air. It’ll serve as a catalyst that will, no doubt, reduce broadband prices. It will also mean that if you’re too far away from the exchange to get broadband you’ll at least have another option.

There’s also Mobile WiMax which is basically the above, but straight into your phone/computer. It doesn’t really exist commercially at the moment, but will probably find its way to market in a couple of years. However, by then, 3G and 4G services might have made WiMax redundant.

Many people also think that WiMax services will mean lots of radio like devices will appear and will become the defacto way of listening to audio. Me, i’m still to be convinced….

Especially, based on the experience i’ve just had to endure.

My friend Helen has recently become the programme controller of radio station and where she lives she’s not able to pick up the station on FM or digital. The internet is therefore her only chance of spying, er, listening in, on her presenters from home. She has purchased an Acoustic Energy WiFi radio to do this. She’s was having trouble installing it, so she promised me dinner in exchange for some tech support.

Helen’s also on the cutting edge of internet technology as she has a WiMax-ish broadband connection, that pulls the internet over the air, from Now Wireless Broadband. So, to get her internet radio to work we had to hook the weirdo modem thing from Now to a wireless router. We then had to get the wireless router working and encrypted and get all the laptops and the WiFi radio to be able to connect.

This took a long time. And I know a little about such things.

To achieve this I had to use the Netgear admin panel, change the different encyption settings and google some queries to my problems. Then to get the WiFi radio hooked up I evntually worked out that I had to take all the security off the network to get the radio to connect and download some new firmware. I then put the security back on and realised that the WiFi radio only like one of the five different encryption options and even then you weren’t supposed to enter the full password, or something. I then had to change all the laptops to the new security settings.

This is all a little but different from hitting ‘autotune’ on a DAB Digital Radio.

Now, i’m convinced that this will all get easier, it better do, it would be impossible for it to get any harder.

However, the radio itself, is alright. When you’ve got the bloody thing to recognise the network it brings up a station menu that lets you navigate by continent to country and then it pulls a list of all the stations (from Reciva). For the UK it pulls 1340 stations, which makes the tuning take a long time to get to the station you want. When you tune in you get a connecting and a buffering and then it appears. We tuned to a GCap local station (that broadcasts on a number of bitrates up to 128), the version we got was 32kbits. It sounded alright, but nothing special, definitely not as crisp as DAB. I imagine this is because it has trouble connecting to the peered version of the stream.

We also had a play with Radio 4, and that was where the best point of the device came up. As well as live streaming you can hear all the ‘listen again’ content on-demand. Lots of the research i’ve recently commissioned has shown that people would love to listen to on-demand content on a radio-like device and this device definitely proves it.

Listening to on-demand radio is something that DAB lacks at the moment. It is something however that we’re working on and should hopefully fixed by the end of the year. Fingers crossed.

So overall, the WiFi radio is a terrible for setup, okay for navigating and use, but has some excellent features. It will be interesting to see how the next generation devices grow and develop and whether their use increases. As part of my job I regular do research studies and have recently added WiFi radio to the list of ‘ways you’ve listened to the radio in the last week’. At the moment i’ve never had a person say they listen this way, it’ll be interesting to see if that changes too.

7 thoughts on “Wi-Fi, Wi-Max and the Radio”

  1. Hm. Helen didn’t already have Wifi, and that’s the installation you took a whole paragraph to describe. But yes, it’s not completely trivial. Then again, for most people, neither is Freeview and that’s doing OK because it only needs doing once.

    I actually decided to post a comment before getting that far, however. I can’t help but notice you unfavourably compared the operating costs of internet broadcasting to those of DAB. I’d suggest that you’re very unlikely to spend anywhere near as much on t’interpipes, and nothing so heavily front-loaded, until you had a lot of listening. And the more speech you have, the better that comparison gets.

    Tip: if you don’t have one yet, the very lovely Logik IR-100 I got from PC World at Xmas has just been dropped to £45. Same software as the AE box.

    But my, would you look how much more quickly it got south of fifty quid than DAB did?

    I’ve been on the other side from you on this one for a very long time now, but I’m still confident that in the long game, DAB’s toast. 🙂

    Here’s an question: have you considered that these Wifi things might start swallowing at-home listening very quickly? Ignoring the place-shifting and the massive choice for a moment, I was over in Edinburgh just before Xmas where I bought this thing. The internet radio also actually had better reception than the DAB radio, which couldn’t pick up a thing through the thick walls.

    Before internet radio goes mobile, I can see a mid-point where it does very well in the far-from-unimportant non-car section of listening.

  2. What I wanted to try and get across in the article, which maybe I didn’t very successfully, was that i’m not against radio over WiFi and i’m very happy if people like it. At the end of the day if people are listening to radio stations – that’s great!

    However, both the installation of the WiFi and the installation of the WiFi Radio was not an easy process. This is one (of many things) that the device will scare people.

    Listeners have an incredibly low expectation of ‘radio’ which partly means they don’t want it to be an hassle to listen to. When asked why they haven’t bought a DAB radio one of the biggest responses is “I don’t need one” – that’s because people are very happy with their FM sets (when they’ve played with a DAB radio (or i’m sure something like this) their viewpoint changes.

    Lots of people are now buying a new radio/boombox/hifi/ipod dock that happens to have DAB in it. When they go to the radio bit, that’s what they’re then consuming as radio – the autotuning just sorts them out. Radio devices are starting to come out with WiFi bits, unfortunately the rigmarole with hooking it up means people will not discover it in the same way. Well at least at the moment.

  3. Internet radio is growing in 2008, on a range of cross-platform devices–computer, gadget, mobile, tabletop, portable, and personal. With the UK DAB brands very involved. A PC (or Mac) is a good place to start now, and will remain a substantial listening place.

    The easiest way for Helen to keep an ear and eye on her station (and others of interest) is with the RadioCentrePlayer: http://www.radiocentre.org. It’s quick, free and easy. From any Internet access point, with a standard browser. Preferenced for UK radio. See what she thinks about that.

    You are absolutely right that leading with a new Wi-Fi connection all but guarantees a horrible experience–but it is not necessary for Internet Radio.

  4. I’m not a fan of the RadioCentre’s radio player, I can see why you are though – you made it!

    I think the main problem with it is that it reduces one of the key benefits for stations doing internet radio – the new types of money it can bring in.

    You’ll notice that most of the UK’s stations have pop-up players that run with pre-roll ads, have ad banners and deep link into other radio station content. I think it’s shocking that none of this runs in the industry’s own player. Plus you guys run an ad-banner in it. In other words you package up a load of content that you don’t own or pay for, strip away the ways it can make money and then shove your own ad banners on it.

    Crazy.

  5. Because of the amount of international listening I have to do, I’ve found a wifi radio pretty handy and have used one daily for around 18 months now. It works most of the time and the listen again functionality you mention is wonderful.

    But there are some very rough edges, both inherent limitations to the technology and poor design.

    The first thing I noticed when plugging it in was that the Logik exhibited a loud hum. I assumed was the product of a poorly regulated power supply, so I took the back off to see whether I could improve matters with a little rudimentary electronics.

    The reality was worse: Logik had decided to put the mains transformer directly behind the loudspeaker so the coil in the speaker was resonating in sympathy with the electromagnetic field around the transformer.

    My Dad always told me never to buy anything with a low serial number and now I know why.

  6. I am listening to my internet radio right now while working from home.

    It is brilliant because I can’t really be bothered to switch on my computer to listen to the radio, it’s just too much hassle even with a neat radioplayer thingy, and it’s not that easy to take my computer into the kitchen. It has a better sound than my computer and I believe that I can set an alarm in it so I can be woken up by my own breakfast show.

    Setting it up was really beyond my technical grasp, although to be honest I didn’t try that hard before calling Matt in. And I didn’t even have to cook dinner, I got my flatmate to do it.

    Actually the bit about setting up wi-fi is relevant to this story because I only bought the wireless router in order to be able to get the wireless radio to work, I was quite happy plugging a cable in up until now. That actually means that this has been quite expensive (over £150) and if I didn’t currently live outside of the TSA of where I work, I wouldn’t have bothered with it. I can’t quite see why a regular person would get one, whereas I know lots of normal people who have embraced digital radios because they’re so easy and user friendly.

  7. Interesting post and views. My thought is that if you go in to Kwik Fit and you hear a radio playing in the garage, it is more likely to be a DAB portable bought in Argos than it is to be internet radio. I think it is easy – and wrong, to assume most people are as geeky as we might be. Many people don’t have the internet at home or work.

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