The preponderance in Hong Kong of hand-held devices shows that we are not shy about embracing digital technology. Nor has the government been slow to recognise the demand, its support of telecommunications companies ensuring connectedness, quality and speeds that are among the best in the world. Digital radio is quite another matter, though, with sluggish take-up and the firm most dedicated to the broadcasting medium seemingly in financial trouble. If authorities gave the fledgling industry greater backing, the outlook would look brighter.
There is no shortage of digital broadcasters or stations. Three commercial companies operate 11 channels and the government station, RTHK, has another five. The industry seems healthy, but numbers alone do not tell the story. Sales of the receivers necessary to pick up signals and downloads for free apps are low, while Digital Broadcasting Corporation Hong Kong, which operates seven channels, is on the verge of liquidation after struggling to generate income.
As with television, digital is the future of radio. It improves on existing AM and FM transmissions by offering more channels, better sound, easier tuning, content manipulation features that allow for pause, rewind and playback of shows, and the receiving of images and text on a built-in screen. However, unlike with high-definition TV, it can be received by barely one in six people. No survey has been carried out to determine listenership, but with weak and unreliable signals, MTR stations and tunnels not being included in a footprint that covers just 70 per cent of our city and radio sets relatively expensive and still unavailable for vehicles, conditions to tune in are not attractive.
DBC Radio's troubles compound the challenge. A rift among shareholders is putting its channels, pivotal to the development of digital radio in our city, in jeopardy. But in being granted a 12-year operating licence 17 months ago, the firm gave a funding pledge to the government. For the sake of its audience and confidence in the industry, its shareholders have to keep their promise.
But the government has an even more crucial role - it literally holds the digital key. For digital radio to take hold, authorities have to significantly boost transmission strengths and help with infrastructure. As a majority shareholder in the MTR, reception in stations and tunnels has to be assured. Carmakers have to be convinced of the need for receivers in new vehicles.
If these necessities are in place and broadcasters offer a product worth tuning in to, Hongkongers will decide the future of digital radio. At that point, the government can seal its position by doing what it has mandated with analogue TV - setting a deadline for making AM and FM broadcasts obsolete.