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iBiquity’s Codec Changes Put It Back On Track

Digital AM/FM broadcasting seems to be back on track now that iBiquity scrapped its PAC codec for a proprietary codec intended to satisfy broadcaster objections over AM-band sound quality.

Broadcasters, consumer electronics suppliers, broadcast-equipment makers, and members of the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC) heard the new codec during recent iBiquity-sponsored auditions and have come away impressed, according to iBiquity and people who heard the demos. The codec is dubbed HDC for HD Codec.

“We’re confident this is the one,” said iBiquity president Robert Struble.

Milford Smith, chairman of the NRSC’s DAB (digital audio broadcasting) subcommittee, endorsed the technology. “In my opinion,” he said of the subcommittee’s earlier request to find a solution to AM sound quality, “they have found that solution.”

The new codec delivers digital AM sound quality that’s “virtually indistinguishable” from today’s FM quality, Smith said. The codec’s enhancements also extend to FM, he said. Digital FM “is virtually indistinguishable from the original CD source” and “is probably better than satellite radio,” he told TWICE.

iBiquity is working with the NRSC to resume the NRSC’s listening tests and standard-setting process, which was suspended by the subcommittee after continuing broadcaster complaints about PAC’s AM quality. Once its formalizes the digital-radio standard, NRSC will send it to the FCC for the commission’s expected approval.

Although the standards-setting suspension means a smaller number than the previously expected “thousands” of digital AM/FM receivers will be available this year, the “major broad aftermarket retail and OEM rollout is still on track for 2004,” Struble said. “We hope five to six aftermarket [car audio] brands will be available in the first half” along with 2004 calendar-year availability of OEM models for 2005-model cars, Struble said.

iBiquity still expects 300 radio stations to be licensed by the end of the year to use the technology, dubbed HD Radio, and “we hope all will be on the air” by then, Struble said.

iBiquity has been working on the new codec, in conjunction with Coding Technologies, for six to seven months as a precaution. The codec changeover won’t require receiver manufacturers to make a major redesign to prototype hardware as previously feared. That will enable at least one company — Kenwood — to offer a car tuner later this year if NRSC testing goes well, said Kenwood VP Bob Law. Kenwood previously targeted August shipments. Thanks to Texas Instruments’ programmable processor, said Struble, “We will transfer the code to Texas Instruments, which will put it on the same chip” for inclusion in Kenwood’s tuner.

If demonstrations and testing go well, Kenwood said its plans its first production runs in September, mainly to offer units to broadcasters for testing and to radio stations to promote digital radio, Law said. If Kenwood decides to ship to retailers this year, it probably won’t be practical to ship any sooner than November to give radio stations the time to install the new codec, Law said. Shipments will be limited, he added. The expected everyday price of Kenwood’s add-on car tuner is $350-$500.

Among other companies developing digital AM/FM tuners and receivers, Yamaha said it postponed plans for a late-2003 home receiver incorporating HD Radio tuner. Delphi said it still has the ability to ship car HD Radio this year to automakers for the 2004 model year, if any automakers want to pursue it for the 2004 model.

Audiovox and Harman Kardon had targeted 2003 shipments for car and home products, respectively. Now, Audiovox might still ship a car receiver late this year but also might hold off for a CES introduction, said Fred Roetker, national sales manager. Harman Kardon said it postponed shipments of a home receiver until mid 2004, but not because of the codec controversy. Kenwood’s Law said his home product will be out in the first quarter of 2004, he added.