New audio age

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 June, 2010, 12:00am

The government's call for applications for digital audio broadcasting operating licences is in its final stages. Commercial Radio, which submitted an application a few months ago, suddenly withdrew it this week and said it would instead focus on developing interactive digital broadcasting on the internet. The decision has raised questions about the city's development of digital audio broadcasting.

As chairman of Wave Media, one of the applicants, I understand the importance of harnessing technology to develop the industry, to transform Hong Kong's economy into one that is innovative and knowledge-driven.

Two years ago, we applied to the government for an AM operating licence. But when the government announced in February that it would roll out digital audio broadcasting with the release of a Band III multiplex that allows up to 13 channels, we proposed to replace the AM licence and seek instead half or more of the spectrum to set up multiple digital channels.

With the multiplex platform, the city's information technology will reach a new milestone that promises greater vitality, innovation and vibrancy in sound broadcasting. Therefore, government efforts in this area should be widely supported by the industry as well as the people.

The move towards digital audio broadcasting is a bold and progressive decision by the government - as well as a highly risky investment. Overseas experience tells us that the majority of attempts unfortunately end in failure.

The opening up of public airwaves has been a long-standing government policy. Everyone takes advantage of the analogue platform - AM and FM sound broadcasting - thus intensifying competition, limiting market share and making it difficult for companies to maximise profit. However, our audio broadcasting industry has a lot of space for growth. It currently consists of three long-time radio broadcasters - RTHK has been around for nearly a century, Commercial Radio for five decades and Metro Radio for over 25 years.

Releasing one multiplex with 13 channels for digital sound broadcasting will not generate undue competition but, rather, it will fuel future demand and stimulate new ideas to bring Hongkongers an entirely new listening experience. It's vital that the government allocate all 13 channels when awarding the licence to give the operator the maximum available resources to develop programming. The success of the new digital venture relies heavily on programme variety; the more channels, the better.

These changes will broaden our horizon in an age of digital information and introduce valuable opportunities into our financial and cultural infrastructures, giving us a strong competitive edge in the global market. Digital audio broadcasting is a new concept of technology application in Hong Kong; the government needs to capitalise on the wealth of experienced and visionary operators and provide support to nurture its growth.

To allow this new voice to be heard, there are at least three things the government can do. First, it needs to facilitate uninterrupted services on MTR trains by encouraging the company to upgrade its radio reception throughout the rail network.

Second, it should incorporate this new digital concept into its transport policy by making it known to foreign carmakers that digital audio broadcasting is the future so that new models will be fitted with a digital radio to enable listening.

Finally, from a technological point of view, the government needs to expand the transmitting power to allow high performance and high reliability for the long-term development and survival of the industry.

If the government fails to fully embrace the advent of this new market, more potential investors may do the same as Commercial Radio, and pull the plug.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator