HD Radio Picks Up Car Makers; Will Listeners Follow?
LAS VEGAS -- For the past several years, my CES itinerary has included a visit to the booth of Columbia-based iBiquity Digital Corp., the developer of the HD Radio system behind digital AM and FM broadcasts. And each year, I've received about the same message when I ask when this promising but oft-ignored technology will start to gain some mass-market relevance: We've got a lot of new receivers coming on the market, plenty of stations are on the air, and customers are starting to get into this.
(See, for instance, my post from last year's CES.)
This year's visit didn't depart that much from the pattern. IBiquity can point to some major advances in support from car manufacturers; Volvo includes HD Radio as standard equipment in its 2009 models, while Ford, Mercedes, Toyota's Scion division, Hyundai and Kia have recently moved to offer it as an option. The company's exhibit also includes a significantly wider variety of tabletop radios, alarm clocks and iPod docks, starting at $79.99; the latter category of devices support HD Radio's "iTunes tagging" feature, in which you can bookmark a favorite song for purchase on the iTunes Store later on.
There's also a display showing how future GPS receivers can use HD Radio to pull down traffic updates off the air; one such device by Dual Electronicsshould ship this spring for perhaps $200 or so. And portable HD Radio receivers should be on sale sometime this year, once iBiquity lines up manufacturers for the reference design it's showing here. "You'll see these this year, for sure," said iBiquity chief executive Bob Struble.
But the selection of home-theater audio/video receivers with HD Radio capability seems no broader or cheaper than a year ago; the cheapest model still seems to be a $1,000 Yamaha model.
Likewise, the selection of stations offering HD Radio broadcasts hasn't seen a big increase in a while, with support particularly poor among AM stations. Struble estimated that among HD Radio stations, only about 20 percent are AM. He said that about 1,400 FM stations broadcast in HD, out of about 5,500 FM stations total (if I'm reading my notes right). Not all of these HD FM stations offer digital-only "HD2" channels, and not all make effective use of that feature -- which, when it's done right, constitutes the single best argument for getting an HD Radio receiver.
Struble said it costs a station about $100,000 to convert to HD broadcasts, after which the added operating costs should be negligible. But if the market for radio advertising is doing as bad as, say, the market for newspaper advertising, few stations are likely to pile up that much cash anytime soon.
Finally, there's the issue of HD Radio's presence in stores -- in my experience, it has little to none. Struble said the company wants to help retailers spotlight products with this feature: "We're working on that and we need to get better at that." But I have heard this line before.
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