Supporting the future of the radio industry

I recently attended TechCon at the Radio Festival at the British Library building in London. The Radio Festival is a three-day celebration of radio that welcomed such luminaries as Brian Eno, Chris Evans and Fi Glover through its doors.

Tech Con 2015TechCon focused on the technology behind radio; where radio engineers from around the world get together to talk about what’s new in the industry including any new technologies. I sat on the committee for this year to run the Radio Festival’s TechCon aspect with engineers from the BBC, Bauer and Global, along with numerous freelancers. The big aim of this event is to give these engineers a better technical understanding so they learn something and debate with industry peers about exciting developments.

Arqiva’s role in the UK radio industry

We play a huge role in the UK’s radio industry, we form the backbone of the UK’s national radio transmission network and much of commercial and public radio rely on us to get their services out to the public 24/7, 365 days a year.

As part of the TechCon committee it was good to represent our interests and be able to get word out about what we're doing that’s new. However, even if we didn't have anything new to say, we'd want to support TechCon because it's a key part of the industry for getting people together and sharing new ideas. There was no financial benefit either. Instead, we were part of something neutral within the industry - it's not aligned to any particular business, and none of the presentations are sales pitches. It's more about the technology, covering what's interesting and new.

The radio industry is growing and evolving

The industry is seeing some rapid growth, so with it we’ve all had to evolve.

To this end, as part of a consortium called Sound Digital, with partners Bauer and UTV we've won the second national commercial DAB muxing (multiplexing) licence launching in March 2016.

This mux will be DAB-plus capable, the first of its kind in the UK. For this we undertook spectrum-planning exercises as, whilst it's a national network, we're covering the country on a fairly low number of transmitters. This was a conscious decision, to make the platform cost lower than some of the other national muxes.

We run one national mux that has a high national coverage percentage. This, however, goes hand-in-hand with a high transmission cost, so we made it part of the offering to create a slightly slimmed-down version to open up the platform to other people on a national basis. At TechCon there was also a dedicated audio over IP (AoIP) session. This covered: how you get audio to your studio via AoIP; how it works in studios and what the requirements are; and the bit I’m concentrating on, how to get audio up to a hilltop with AoIP.

It’s worth noting that we have been doing AoIP for quite a while. Our DAB network, which has been around for around 15 years, is a big platform. We've also recently launched SUREnet, which is an AoIP product, and we have designed an AoIP network for the BBC. We have some of the largest AoIP networks in the UK.

So, our intention at TechCon was to help people take back information to help build their own AoIP network.

Working with customers to innovate and maximise their reach and impact

BT will shortly be changing its infrastructure, so a number of circuit types are being withdrawn in 2020. The technology they're being replaced with includes ethernet and DSL; fundamentally IP solutions. Therefore, anything we design that needs to transport audio probably needs to be AoIP. Adapting the native IP nature of those circuits back to X21 would be a step in the wrong direction; the technology wouldn't really support it. It's a big issue currently, something that will affect all our radio customers. We developed SUREnet to help support our customers make the move from old TDM style circuits to the new IP infrastructure that is now available. We're also doing some work to update DAB over the next couple of years.

The DAB platform was seen to be quite costly, so we've done a fair amount of remedial work to this end. We have low cost solutions to allow people to get into our network, using technologies like DSL. We’re also looking at converging a number of our networks. We built a new multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) network a few years ago, so we're virtualising a number of our other networks onto that platform to share both the router devices and circuits into people's buildings for more than one service. So if a customer is on FM radio and they're using SUREnet to get up to the radio site, why can’t that same connectivity be used to get them onto DAB? It's another network but you can virtualise it, running it off the same kit, but the traffic is totally safe and secure.

We’re also striving for improved power efficiency at each of our transmitters. We have already achieved a 30% improvement on this over recent years, but we are continuing to work closely with our suppliers to further drive power efficiency.

Our goals in the future

We'll start to migrate other networks next year, for those operating on FM, DAB and TV. Radio stations are diversifying, which would have previously meant putting five or six different types of connectivity into their buildings. Over the next couple of years we're looking to rationalise this into one using our MPLS network.

The way the industry has evolved plays into consolidating connectivity.

A number of larger customers are centralising some elements of their playout. We've moved from the position where everything was point-to-point (where there were lots of studios) to a point-to-multipoint topology which is more efficient when considering a central studio with many different streams available.

DAB has changed the industry but it's been a slow burner. It is, however, still growing. Our DAB network is one of the largest in Europe, possibly even further, and it's continually growing. We run about 60 different muxes, in comparison with Norway which is about to carry out a switchover and is running 20 or 30. If people want to be on both platforms, there are benefits to be had. As with everything in today’s radio industry, it's about balance.