Officials should do more to bring HK's radio broadcasts into the digital age

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am

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Digital audio broadcasting services are generally accessible in Hong Kong. Besides the three Metro Broadcast channels that are still being tested and the one operated by Phoenix U Radio, RTHK has five and DBC Radio has seven.

The launch of these services has marked a new era of digital audio broadcasting development in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the take-up rate of digital audio broadcasting hasn't been as fast as that of high-definition television services.

One of the main reasons is a lack of government policies and initiatives to support industry stakeholders. And, as a result, it has indirectly stifled the development and growth of digital audio broadcasting in the city.

First, the government has taken a vastly different approach in developing digital audio broadcasting. When high-definition television services were launched a few years ago, it was clear that the existing analogue television services would eventually be made obsolete. But with digital audio broadcasting, it's a different story because the current FM and AM radio services are still allowed to co-exist.

This doesn't provide an advantageous environment for digital audio broadcasting to develop and become popular because radio listeners don't have an urgency to acquire digital radio sets to switch over.

Second, the government has provided little technical support and thus limited the coverage area and network of digital audio broadcasting, which has slowed the pace of acceptance.

At present, there are seven transmitting stations in operation, covering some 70 per cent of Hong Kong. This coverage allows the majority of people in urban areas and new towns in the New Territories to pick up digital audio broadcasting. However, people in some rural areas are still unable to receive digital radio signals.

The government must increase the number of transmitting stations as soon as possible. DBC Radio is planning to build four supplementary transmitting stations by the end of the year and hopefully by then the coverage will be vastly improved to bring services to nearly 80 per cent of Hong Kong.

But to genuinely improve coverage and reception, the government must step in to smooth the way to allow radio broadcasting on the MTR as well as in tunnels. The government must convince the MTR Corporation to install the necessary equipment in order to accommodate digital audio broadcasting. Once that's in place, digital audio broadcasting will truly be accessible citywide.

Another stumbling block has been the strength of transmission, which directly affects the quality and reliability of services.

In nearby Guangzhou, digital audio broadcasting has an effective radiated power of 20,000 watts for its digital audio broadcasting while in Australia it goes up to 45,000 watts. In Hong Kong, the most powerful transmitting station has only 6,000 watts of transmission power while the others have between 40 and 3,000 watts. How pathetic!

The poor quality of transmission has greatly affected the number of radio listeners. In order to pave the way to facilitate the long-term development of digital audio broadcasting in Hong Kong, the government must boost the transmission power so that the quality and reliability of services can be improved.

Meanwhile, the government must phase out the existing AM and FM services and grant two more frequency bands to facilitate the development of more channels in the digital format to enrich the broadcasting industry and provide Hong Kong with another new core industry.

The government could further promote digital audio broadcasting with overseas carmakers. It should let them know that Hong Kong has gone digital in audio broadcasting so that they can incorporate it into their future models.

Hong Kong people are willing to expose themselves to novel ideas and new technologies. So long as the government makes it clear that digital audio broadcasting is the way forward, the market and consumers will be able to quickly adapt to the new trend.

More than 220,000 people have already downloaded DBC Radio free apps. The internet, a number of Now TV channels and PCCW eye2 smartphones are other ways to tune in to DBC Radio services. Now TV has more than 1.22 million subscribers while PCCW provides landlines to some 200,000 households.

Hong Kong has three radio broadcasters that have been operating for many years with relatively no competition at all. We believe the addition of a new digital radio broadcaster will change the current dynamics and create a new market environment to attract a new generation of radio listeners who crave a novel audio experience.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator and founder of DBC Radio