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Microsoft joins DAB Forum in digital radio push

Posted: 15 Apr 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:developing digital audio broadcasting? dab? audio? video? codec?

Microsoft executives have decided that a little DAB'll do them.

Eager to move its proprietary audio/video (A/V) codec into Europe's steadily growing digital radio market, Microsoft Corp. has brokered a full membership in the global industry group now developing digital audio broadcasting (DAB) technology.

As the forum moves forward with "multiple new opportunities such as 5.1 surround sound and video-to-mobile implementations" using radio signals, "we want to be an active voice in the World DAB Forum," said Gareth Sutcliffe, senior business manager of the Windows Digital Media division at Microsoft.

Microsoft has clearly targeted digital radio as a destination for its Windows Media Series 9 platform, even as the company continues to campaign for its inclusion in the next-generation high-definition DVD spec and in an emerging TV-on-mobile standard called DVB-handheld. The software giant now hopes the radio broadcast community will embrace Windows Media Audio 9 Professional (WMA9 Pro) and Windows Media Video 9 (WMV9). If the effort succeeds, the Microsoft codecs would be layered atop the current DAB for next-generation multimedia data services.

Mike Wolf, principal analyst with In-Stat/MDR's consumer media and content group, called the latest move "a part of a larger domino effect Microsoft has been seeding for some time." Angling to move beyond the PC, it is putting its technology "into systems, into portable hard media and downloadable media," Wolf said.

For those who struggled with the sluggish DAB market until a couple of years ago, Microsoft's participation in the World DAB Forum is viewed as much-needed impetus toward a digital radio standard. Steve Evans, VP of sales at Frontier Silicon, a London-based fabless chip company developing systems-on-chip for digital TV and digital radio, said, "Microsoft's bringing its codec into the market will broaden the appeal of DAB."

While a terrestrial digital radio technology, iBiquity's HD Radio, has barely begun in the U.S., digital audio broadcasting radio is already available in 35 countries. The U.K., which had 478,000 DAB households in January, is expected to top 1 million by year's end, the World DAB Forum said. Indeed, DAB's gathering momentum in the past two years, particularly in the U.K., is the evident trigger for Microsoft's interest.

Since last fall, Microsoft has been taking part in a trial in London of 5.1-channel surround sound over DAB, using Microsoft's homegrown WMA Pro audio compression technology. Also involved are Capital Radio, NTL Broadcast, and RadioScape.

Microsoft also joined with NTL Broadcast and RadioScape last year at the International Broadcast Convention in Amsterdam, Netherlands, to demonstrate a live full-motion video broadcast over DAB at 120Kbps, using WMV9.

The Eureka 147 System, on which current DAB services are based, comprises three main elements: Musicam audio coding, which uses psychoacoustical coding as specified for MPEG-2 Audio Layer II; transmission coding/multiplexing; and coded orthogonal frequency-division multiplexed modulation. Of the gross data capacity available for the entire DAB signal at about 3Mbps, a net useful payload - which can be used for audio, video, text and data broadcasting - available per multiplex, or a single stream ready for transmission, is in the range of 0.6- to 1.7Mbps, according to the Eureka 147 standard.

Although Eureka 147 was developed as an audio spec, Nigel Oakley, VP of marketing at RadioScape, believes DAB has enough bandwidth for use "as a delivery mechanism for multimedia services in the mobile world." Oakley called Microsoft's membership in the World DAB Forum "a recognition and endorsement on the potential of DAB."

He said DAB, designed for portable devices to meet low-power requirements and certain RF conditions, should have a leg up on digital video broadcast in mobile-TV applications. "DVB is great for fixed TVs already installed at home, but for portable applications, it has problems with low-power requirements and multipath fading."

Today, in the WMA Pro 5.1-channel trial over DAB, the surround sound per channel is transmitted at a data rate of 160Kbps, Microsoft said.

Developing a new multimedia broadcasting standard over DAB is still in the early stages in the World DAB Forum's technical committee. A host of digital multimedia broadcast trials using DAB as a transport layer are under way, including in Korea and China. While Microsoft's Windows Media 9 series is not yet a shoo-in, its codec is a strong contender likely to compete against H.264 and MPEG-4.

Gerry Kaufhold, principal analyst at In-Stat/MDR, believes Microsoft's recent history "certainly sets the stage for WMV9 to become a mainstream consumer platform." Specifically, Kaufhold cited Microsoft's WMV9 submission to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineering (SM-PTE), its willingness to work with partners and its action to freeze the codec APIs.

WMA Pro, on the other hand, remains Microsoft's proprietary audio codec. Sutcliffe said his company is not yet prepared to discuss how it would deal with intellectual-property rights issues for both WMV9 and WMA Pro, if they're adopted by DAB. "We expect very vigorous discussions [in the World DAB Forum]," he said.

Windows Media 9 is making steady inroads in a variety of consumer platforms. "Microsoft was successful in getting WM9 approved for HD DVD," said Michelle Abraham, In-Stat/ MDR senior market analyst. "For online delivery of content they will combine DRM, WM9, and IPTV software, which cuts down on the number of vendors a broadband provider needs to deal with."

In-Stat's Kaufhold said, "If WM9 content is coming at you from your cellphone handset, your in-car surround sound radio and over the Internet to your computer, then people will eventually upgrade their computers, to do more with all their WM9 content." That means more sales of Microsoft's "bread-and-butter" products, he said.

- Junko Yoshida

EE Times

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