DAB Digital Radio, which is also known as digital audio broadcasting, is an entirely new system for broadcasting and receiving radio stations. As the name indicates signals are broadcast in a digital format to enable CD quality to be achieved. People who have heard DAB digital radio have commented on the significantly better sound quality and "presence" of the new radio system. Also it does not suffer from the multipath effects often experienced on FM transmissions and as the system uses what it known as a single frequency network (SFN) there is no retuning required when moving from one coverage area to the next.
In addition to this many new services can be carried on these digital radio transmissions enabling the new system to be compatible with the 21st century. The digital radio signal carries data alongside the audio, and this enables text and images to be transmitted alongside the audio to enhance the listening experience. In this way it is possible to transmit the title of a track, and a picture of the artist whilst the some music is being transmitted. It is also possible to have news scrolling across the bottom of the screen used on the radio.
DAB digital radio is now well established in many countries around the world from the UK and Europe to Canada, Australia and many other countries. With the facilities that digital radio offers it is now being accepted and listeners are switching to these new digital radio transmissions in the areas where they are available.
How DAB digital radio works
To produce a digital system that operates satisfactorily under the conditions required for digital radio a large amount of work was undertaken in the development stages. Some existing digital techniques were investigated but it was realised these had significant limitations for this application. One of the major problems was that many receivers would use non-directional antennas and as a result they would pick up reflected signals. These would be delayed sufficiently for the data to become corrupted. Additionally the bandwidth required to accommodate a full stereo signal would need to be reduced to ensure efficient use of the spectrum. The technical standards for digital radio were developed under the auspices of the European Eureka Project 147. This consortium consisted of manufacturers, broadcasters research bodies and network operators.
There are two main areas of the system that are of interest in digital radio: namely the modulation system and the audio digital encoding and compression system.
The encoding and compression system is of paramount importance. For the system to be viable the data rate has to be considerably reduced from that of a standard CD. The digital radio system adopted reduces the data rate down to 128 kbits / sec, a sixth of the bit rate for a similar quality linearly encoded signal. To achieve these reductions the incoming audio signal is carefully analysed. It is found that the ear has a certain threshold of hearing. Below this the signals are not heard. Additionally if a strong sound is present on one frequency then weaker sounds close to it may not be heard because the threshold of hearing is modified. By analysing the incoming audio and only encoding those constituents that the ear will hear the significant reductions can be made. Further reductions in data rate can be achieved by reducing the audio bandwidth. This is implemented on some channels such as those used only for speech.
The other key to the operation of digital radio is the modulation system. Called Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex (COFDM) it is a form of spread spectrum modulation that provides the robustness required to prevent reflections and other forms of interference from disrupting reception.
The system uses about 1500 individual carriers that fill around 1.5 MHz of spectrum. The carriers are spaced very close to one another. Interference between the carriers is prevented by making the individual signals orthogonal to each other. This is done by spacing each one by a frequency equal to the data rate being carried. In this way the nulls in the modulation sidebands fall at the position where the next carrier is located. The audio data is then spread across the carriers so that each carrier takes only a small proportion of the data rate. This has the advantage that if interference is encountered in one area then sufficient data is received to reconstitute the required signal. Guard bands are also introduced at the beginning of each symbol, and the combined effect is such that the system is immune to delays consistent with signals 60 km further away than the primary source.
Note on OFDM:
Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex, OFDM is a form of signal format that uses a large number of close spaced carriers that are each modulated with low rate data stream. The close spaced signals would normally be expected to interfere with each other, but by making the signals orthogonal to each other there is no mutual interference. The data to be transmitted is shared across all the carriers and this provides resilience against selective fading from multi-path effects.
With this level of immunity, the system can operate with other digital radio transmitters operating on the same frequency without any ill effects. This means that it is possible to set up a system where all the transmitters for a network operate on the same frequency. This means that it is possible to set up single frequency networks throughout an area in which a common "multiplex" is used. Even though it may appear that this is a recipe for poorer reception caused by several transmitters using the same frequency, the opposite is actually true. It is found that out of area signals tend to augment the required signal. It also means that small areas of poor coverage can have a small transmitter on exactly the same frequency filling in the hole and further improving reception in adjacent areas.
A further advantage of this digital radio system is that it requires less power than the more traditional transmitters. For example those that carry the main BBC FM networks from the main transmitting sites like Wrotham in the South East of England run at powers of around 100 kW for each of the four main services that are transmitted. The cost of the electricity alone is a significant factor in the BBC's running costs and the power reductions will bring huge savings, not to mention the environmental benefits.
DAB band allocations
In the UK a spectrum allocation between 217.5 and 230 MHz has been reserved for digital radio transmissions. This gives a total of seven blocks of 1.55 MHz, each able to carry a multiplex of services. In other countries as well spectrum is being made available. Within Europe spectrum is being made available either in Band III as in the UK or in L band between 1452 and 1467 MHz. The upper part of the band between 1467 and 1492 will be reserved for satellite delivery of digital radio.
DAB radio equipment
One of the main problems with the initial launch of digital radio was the availability of the equipment. A large investment had been required from the equipment manufacturers. The heavy reliance on digital signal processing techniques meant large development programmes were needed to develop the equipment. There were also problems with the fact that the early implementations required high current levels. These solutions would not have been suitable for portable receivers, and for in car and home applications heat dissipation was a problem. Furthermore the multi-chip solutions made the equipment large and bulky as well as making the manufacturing costs high.
Manufacturers soon solved the problem. Specific chip sets for DAB were developed and these enabled costs to be reduced dramatically from the initial ones that were seen so that DAB is no where near as high as it was when compared to FM receivers.
Many people now comment on the significant enhancements that DAB digital radio brings. One typical example was when a friend walked into a shop and noticed the music playing had an increased presence. He assumed it must be DAB, and this was confirmed when he asked. Others have noticed the seamless performance when in a car. None of the intermittent hissing when travelling through a marginal area between the two transmitters.
Accordingly DAB digital radio is now the broadcasting medium for the 21st Century.