Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB)

When the CRTC licensed subscription radio in June, 2005, the Canadian licencee was CSRC - CHUM Subscription Radio Canada (Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2005-248). Initially, an 80/20 partnership between Canadian broadcast network CHUM and Astral Media Radio Inc., a division of Quebec-based media giant Astral, CSRC was designed to provide terrestrial digital radio using the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) standard approved by the government of Canada and operational under 'transitional digital radio' licences.

CSRC was licensed together with satellite radio companies XM Canada and Sirius Canada. The event was a major step in the implementation of digital media in Canada, and prefaced by the CRTC in its Introduction to Broadcasting Decisions CRTC 2005-246 to 2005-248: Licensing of new satellite and terrestrial subscription radio undertakings (Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 2005-61)

Digital radio technology had been rapidly evolving to include, among others, S-band satellite radio used by XM and Sirius, and Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), the L-band terrestrial digital technology formally accepted as Canada's national standard. CSRC was licensed to deliver 50 DAB radio channels, all produced in Canada, 10 of which would be French, with the same Canadian content requirements as conventional radio stations. XM and Sirius launched in time for Christmas that year. The all-Canadian service never launched.

Eureka and Canadian DAB
DAB was based on Eureka 147, a digital satellite technology developed by a European consortium and designed for the most difficult receiving environment a moving vehicle. DAB could provide near-perfect audio clarity and reception, but within a defined transmit area. Conventional radio signals gradually faded with distance from the transmitter; DAB signals remained perfect to the edge of the transmit area and then disappeared. DAB spanned the frequency range of human hearing and each radio channel included bandwidth space for auxiliary data transmissions, WorldWide Web connectivity, data storage and image capabilities.

Eureka 147 was backed by the World DAB Forum, a global organization of 100 companies from 25 countries, comprising broadcasters, manufacturers, regulators and telecommunications entities. Canada was instrumental in setting early global technical standards for DAB when, in 1992, a Canadian delegation attended the World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC), the international governing body that set communications technical standards. The Canadians lobbied to increase frequency spectrum allocated to DAB worldwide, and met with considerable opposition; in North America some of those frequencies were in use by telemetry services for aeronautics and military aircraft, and in other countries for microwave systems. But the Canadian delegation was successful and frequency allocations were changed to accommodate DAB.

Canadian researchers recognized that this satellite technology, transmitting in L-band in Canada, as opposed to satellite radio's S-band, could be implemented as a terrestrial digital replacement for existing radio, without the space segment. Following WARC, experimental DAB transmitters were built in a number of Canadian cities, Canada hosted a World DAB conference in 1994, formed a government-industry task force on DAB implementation, and through Industry Canada, formally adopted Eureka 147 for Canadian DAB. Canada was the first country to come up with a national digital frequency allotment plan to duplicate existing AM and FM stations.

Digital Radio Research Inc. (DRRI), was formed as a collaborative consortium, including the renowned Communications Research Centre (CRC) in Ottawa, to implement DAB. In May, 1998, the first "transitional digital radio undertaking" (DRU) licences were granted to Toronto stations by the CRTC.

DAB On-Air
By the end of 1999, 23 Toronto radio stations were broadcasting in DAB from the CN Tower. Two DAB transmitters with eight services were constructed in Montreal, and in Vancouver, one experimental transmitter broadcast private stations while a CBC transmitter was scheduled to handle another 13 DAB stations. Digital Radio Research Inc. was renamed 'Digital Radio Roll-Out Inc.' in preparation for commercial launch of Canadian service.

Broadcasters were licensed to simulcast their AM or FM programming, together with 14 hours per week of "other, non-simulcast programming." These initial DAB radio stations were available off-air to any listener with a DAB receiver. Experimental auxiliary programming was designed to evolve into subscription radio services or pay radio services for special events such as concerts.

Licences issued were for three years instead of the usual seven. The licence term, noted the Commission, "should not be interpreted as a lack of commitment to digital radio broadcasting on the part of the Commission," but rather as a prelude to a long-term policy and licensing regime and subsequently, a simple, stream-lined process for full-term licence replacement.

A Slow Start to DAB
The technical launch of DAB in Canada was slow, city-by-city and, ultimately, unsuccessful. While General Motors announced in 2001 that it would include DAB receivers in a number of its new vehicles to be sold in Canada, by 2003, the company had backed off that promise. Consumer equipment was severely limited and very expensive.

The CRTC approved the first stand-alone DAB station, which proponents hoped would provide a boost to implementation. Sur Sagar, - 'Ocean of Music' in Punjabi - was licensed as a Toronto ethnic radio station in Hindi and Punjabi. Sur Sagar already operated a radio service on a Toronto station sub-carrier but rather than move to the already crowded AM or FM band, the station determined that its listeners would purchase DAB radio equipment in order to receive a better-quality signal with more programming. As the first stand-alone DAB station, Sur Sagar intended to broadcast unique programming rather than a simulcast (Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2003-118) but the station never launched.

By 2003, the 'grey market' and the 'black market' in unauthorized satellite radio reception in Canada was becoming a major problem, and the CRTC received its applications for subscription radio.

DAB Stalls
By the end of 2006, 60 DAB stations were operational in Canada, but no network connected them. The promise of regional, provincial or even national seamless radio tuning remained unfulfilled.

The CRTC issued a new Digital Radio Policy (Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 2006-160) and a new Commercial Radio Policy (Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 2006-158).

"After a promising start, the rollout of DRB (digital radio broadcasting) has slowed in recent years in Canada," said the Commission's Digital Radio Policy. "In fact, the adoption of the new digital radio technology by consumers and the switch-over by the radio industry to digital is now effectively stalled."

The Commission's policies cited a number of reasons for the changing radio landscape and the failure of DAB technology including:

  • dramatic changes in the 'delivery and consumption of audio programming' via new regulated and unregulated technologies such as MP3 players, iPods, other personal media devices, Internet music services, radio streaming including streaming over wireless broadband, podcasting, peer-to-peer file sharing and downloading, cell phone radio, and satellite radio;
  • the lack of consumer radios and the high cost of those few available;
  • Canada's choice of L-band for DAB, not Band III, a VHF frequency used for DAB in many other countries;
  • the requirement for bilingual display screens, unique to Canada;
  • U.S. rejection of DAB and support for IBOC In-Band On-Channel - a competing terrestrial digital radio technology that more or less fit into existing AM and FM frequencies;
  • the automotive industry support of satellite radio, partly due to the absence of a national Canadian DAB corridor for cars;
  • the advent of satellite radio in Canada.

The 2006 CRTC policy eliminated the 'transitional' designation in 'digital radio undertakings' with a seven-year licence term, with the freedom "subject to the L-band DRB regulatory framework to develop whatever broadcast services (broadcasters) believe will be of greatest interest to the listening public."

By that point, however, the two satellite radio operators had secured hundreds of thousands of subscribers and cars already equipped with conventional AM/FM receivers were adding satellite radio antennas. DAB appeared to have run out of impetus and in the following year, CHUM Ltd. was sold, together with its DAB station and network licences.

Written by Daphne Lavers - December, 2007