How is HD Radio doing in Canada? It depends

A women holds a Pure 'Highway 600' in-car DAB audio adapter to update a regular car radio to a DAB radio at the IFA 2017 tech fair in Berlin, Germany, on Aug. 31, 2017. While countries like Germany have embraced DAB, North America has adopted HD Radio — and not everyone is using it. AP Photo/Michael Sohn

Back in 1999, a man in a van pulled up. “Wanna hear something cool?” Inside was a Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) receiver, demonstrating the fidelity of digital signals from an experimental transmitter in Toronto, including programming from my station, 102.1 the Edge/Toronto. It sounded great. Better than great, in fact.

Born out of a European research project in 1995, DAB promised static-free, CD-quality, better-than-FM audio. And it did. The new technology was also far more efficient, cramming more radio signals into the same bandwidth, something that was appealing to markets with AM and FM dials at maximum capacity. Its successor, DAB+, uses substantially less electricity than power-hungry AM and FM transmitters. The prediction was that it was just a matter of time before DAB replaced analogue AM and FM broadcasts. “Soon,” we were told. And then … nothing. At least in North America.

Much of the rest of the world — 55 countries, at last count, including Australia, Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Ghana, Hong Kong, Italy, and Poland — have enacted DAB broadcasting, offering programming on more than 2,100 stations available. Norway went 100 per cent DAB in 2023, shutting off all other transmitters. In Switzerland and the U.K., it’s the most popular of all radio bands. And all cars sold in the EU have been required to have DAB radios since 2021.

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Us? Nope.

Oh, we tried with DAB services in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa. The CRTC thought DAB would replace AM and FM by 1996. By 2008, there were over 70 broadcasters trying it out. But Canadians — both radio broadcasters and the general public — balked. No one wanted to invest in new radios to replace the units they had been using for years. That position hardened when we looked at the price of receivers. Besides, the U.S. decided that DAB wasn’t the way to go: too expensive; too much market fragmentation; regulatory hassles (including, apparently, run-ins with the military over the frequencies it wanted to use); and too many hassles for consumers. Besides, DAB came along at the same time as satellite radio and the early days of streaming radio over the internet.

“Not for us,” said America. “Besides, we have our own ideas for digital broadcasting. We call it HD radio.”

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HD Radio is a brand name, a technology invented by a company called iBiquity which had its standard (technically known as “in-band on-channel digital radio” or IBOC) selected by the Federal Communications Commission. Once that happened, the availability of DAB radios (also known as L-Band receivers) all but dried up for Canada and Mexico. We had no choice but to follow the U.S. and its vision of what digital radio broadcasting should be. Canada dropped out of DAB in the early 2010s.

HD Radio then slowly rolled out in Canada and is being used today. But did you know that? Probably not. But it’s there.

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Without getting too far into the weeds, up to four HD Radio broadcasts hitch rides on a single FM signal, offering completely different programming. For example, tune into 95.3 Energy Radio in Hamilton (“95.3-1”) and one tick over, you can also receive talk programming from 640 Toronto (“95.3-2”). And if you have a car that’s less than 10 years old, there’s an excellent chance that it’s equipped to receive these broadcasts.

The problem is that both Canadian and American broadcasters listeners have been slow to pick up on HD Radio. While there are a dozen or so options in Southern Ontario, vast swaths of the country are HD Radio deserts.  There are only two HD Radio signals each in Saskatchewan and Alberta and nothing at all in the Maritimes or Manitoba. Canada is home to about 40 HD stations. Meanwhile, there are about 2,000 such stations in the U.S.

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So what’s the deal with HD Radio in Canada? Why so slow on the uptake? There are a couple of reasons.

First, I’m not sure if the CRTC has even officially endorsed HD Radio as the standard in the country. Broadcasters, still feeling burned by what happened with DAB back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are wary. They also remember the fiasco that was AM stereo in the 1980s. And Canadians just seem to be happy with good ol’ AM and FM, even though at least a third of the country’s population has access to HD Radio of some sort. I have it in my car, but I never think to tune in. It’s AM, FM, satellite, or streaming audio from my phone using Apple CarPlay. HD Radio isn’t even an afterthought — a shameful admission for someone who’s been in the business for over 40 years. I don’t even know if anyone gathers ratings on HD stations.

Nevertheless, something has to eventually succeed AM broadcasting (the earliest form of radio broadcasting dating back more than 100 years) and FM radio (born in 1931). Radio groups continue to experiment by offering alternate programming, simulcasting low-fidelity AM signals in CD quality (an excellent use!), and leasing HD channels to third parties to, say, broadcast in foreign languages.

It’s possible that broadcasters could band together to push greater HD Radio adoption. But then there’s also app-based listening through things like the excellent Radioplayer Canada which offers more than 500 stations from across the country in digital quality. Given how quickly vehicle infotainment systems are iterating, apps may be the way to go. And as the world moves toward connected cars and fast cellular speeds — i.e. 6G and beyond — what will that mean for broadcasters? How will they adapt and adopt? And if lightning-fast, two-way, app-based audio is the future, won’t that mean all those countries who jumped into DAB will be left behind?

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So many hypotheticals, so much uncertainty. Meanwhile, though, you might want to give HD Radio a try— if you’re in a part of the country with that kind of service. And yes, you’ll probably need to dig out your owner’s manual.

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