Monday 27 November 2017

From 5G to Smart Speakers - RadioTechCon 2017

As far as Radio conference venues go, the original official home of the BBC (1923-1932) is pretty hard to beat. This year for TechCon, attendees gathered at the headquarters of the IET at historic Savoy Place.

After my fine announcing of the fire escapes, the day kicked off fittingly with a tribute from the BBC’s Angela Stevenson to the rich engineering heritage of our great industry. The pioneers who persevered were pictured in sepia, not least W. T. Ditcham (who, in his Marconi days, had been the first European voice ever to be heard on radio in America) alongside his huge 6kW transmitter.

We were reminded about the engineers' efforts in World War I, hiding in tents and intercepting signals; and about Dame Nellie Melba’s valiant broadcast debut, sponsored by the Daily Mail. Mention too of the truly wonderful Peter Eckersley, who became the BBC’s first Chief Engineer, but whose relations with Reith were to become strained.

Then to the future - and 5G is on the way. Andy Murphy from the BBC defined it, as we imagined, as enhanced mobile broadband. That means it’ll have the capacity to handle all manner of things from consumer to business and public sector. The extra capability being as much about the quantity of usages, as much as some of them being demanding of capacity. From lights to wind turbines and washing machines. He also stressed that it would offer higher reliability, much needed for its critical potential uses.

Using higher frequency spectrum (700 MHz, 3.5 GHz and 26-28 GHz) with software-driven solutions, the network can be partitioned well for different users, with defined parameters for each. Important though our own industry uses may be, vehicle to vehicle communication will likely be seen as more so on the arrival of driverless cars.

Whilst it was envisaged 5G would start its rollout in June next year, there’ll now be an ‘early drop’ in time for Winter Olympics trial.

Could 5G replace broadcast? The speakers agreed it could constitute an ever-growing part of our listening cake, not least as it handles greater traffic with ease, albeit the familiar challenges of coverage and consumer cost (data) remain. There was some concern too about the gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' - given that access would be seen increasingly  as something which should be a utility for all

Mark Henry from EE, battling on as he recovered from his broken leg, addressed coverage, reminding us they are heading for 95% population coverage for 4G, having risen from 40% in 2015. 5G, he suggested, would take longer, and his EBU colleague suggested longer still, owing to the rollout complexity. 

Simon Fell’s EBU slides were replete with detail, and we’d expect nothing less. His examples even included hospital use - controlling everything from a wheelchair to a bed. Simon talked about some American in car experiments too, with signals robust even at 60 mph. He also cited one original demand of the standard was that it should be able to provide non-SIM access to provide for free-to-air TV. I questioned him whether the same could presumably allow for free-to-air radio too, at which he nodded.

To Virtual Reality, and Roger Hall from Global offered a practical demo of their genius virtual training studio. He knows what it’s like when programmers and engineers get calls at 2.00am when their dim new freelancer has forgotten how to put their desk into sustain. Having introduced ‘driving licences’ for presenters, this VR solution now offers a chance for a hands-on interactive guided tour round a virtual Leicester Square studio. Trainees are told which buttons to press when, and quizzed to see they’ve remembered. There are also disaster rehearsals too - from studio evacuation to ‘what to do if the ads play over the songs’.

Global's virtual studio took three months to develop, and is available both in London and around the UK thanks to a flight-case version. It’s a stunning cost-efficient training idea from an impressively together commercial company. I like the idea of 'driving licences' too. Maybe we should extend that across the industry to basic presentation skills.

Happy Christmas. This year, smart speakers will be a big thing, and without doubt, we’re all highly likely to live in smart homes by the middle of the next decade. Dan McQuillin, of Broadcast Bionics, spelt out the perils first. He reminded us of one US presentation which said the potential was 'magical', but one which had ‘turned our daughter into a raging arsehole’. It’s true. Those touchscreen toddlers will soon be replaced by kids who just shout and expect something to happen.

The always impressive Mike Hill from RadioPlayer reminded us that of all the entertainment audio people choose on their smart speaker, radio stations lead the way. He weighed up the strengths of each smart brand, with Amazon Echo, armed with Alexa, great for linking up with shopping and the wider world; Google Home (‘plug in Glade air freshener’) being typically brilliant with its artificial intelligence; the Microsoft option good for Skype; and the delayed Apple Home pod probably the best sounding but most costly option.

Mike told of the journey of the RadioPlayer skill. Skills, it seems, require the devising of a series of instructions - from 'wake' to 'invoke' a named skill, and 'utterance' of what you want it to do, and how. RadioPlayer was constructed to play a named station, or a station with nearly the name you’ve mentioned, or recommend a similar station, with that result informed by analysis of RadioPlayer data on listener crossover. I'd love to see all that data.

Radio evokes emotion and Mike reminded us how much we ask of a listener when seeking to harness that passion. We expect them to remember how to get in touch - and bother so to do. Mike demoed: ‘tell the studio I’m enjoying the show’ and Alexa duly despatched a message to the relevant station's Broadcast Bionics dashboard. ‘Tell the studio I hate/love this song’ was similarly channelled. (Being a believer that the listener relationship is with the presenter or station rather than ‘studio’, I do hope it can also be programmed to ‘tell station/presenter name’ rather than ‘studio’ - but I see no reason why this brilliant thing also couldn’t).

Alexa can similarly answer questions about what’s playing. Who’s the interviewee on Desert Island Discs? What song is this? Test your station on RadioPlayer, pleaded Mike, and review your metadata.

It’s all hugely exciting and yet another example of how radio is set to rule its second century. We must understand it well, and thanks to Mike we are starting to. The risk is others may steal our clothes, but there is no reason for that to happen given our unrivalled understanding of the audio world. Mike talked too both of the excellent relationship with Amazon - but of some of the challenges, for example in finding just the right catch up content when requested by voice command

Audio over IP is now commonplace, getting audio round stations with far less wire, and the ever-smiling Jamie Laundon from the BBC talked about the challenges of the interoperability of products from different vendors. One helpful move is the, shortly to be updated, AES67 - the ‘O Negative’ of audio networking.

Archiving next, and a timely topic. I’m always amazed how many lovely stations call me, Stephanie Hirst, Andy WalmsleyAircheck Downloads, Richard White or like minded anoraks when they need their own vintage audio. Surely the wealth of archive from this great medium of ours cannot just be down to us and our old cassettes or stealing 5" spools from skips.

The BBC is taking it seriously - and is now digitising with a frenzy, for example recently committing all BBC Wales material to audio cryogenics. Steve Daly told us they’d not only preserved the tapes, they’d preserved the tape machines to play them on, and got through 37 litres of alcohol and goodness knows how many cotton buds in transferring treasured audio from crumbling quarter-inch tape. He also mentions the BBC has archived its ceremonial spoons. So now you know.

The challenge is clear, the lifespan of the medium appears to diminish, as the the storage density grows. Messages carved in stone last a long time, but you don’t get too much info on a tombstone. Do check the DPP guide to digital archiving.

Who is the most famous engineer? When children in the North East were asked that question, they answered with the name of Coronation Street’s Kevin Webster. 

Little wonder that, over lunch, senior engineering heads were lamenting to me the challenges of recruitment. Carol Harrison from STEM Ambassadors talked persuasively on the matter, and the challenges of getting children interested in the STEM subjects (science, technology. engineering and mathematics) in the first place. She cited the increase in forensic science students following CSI. (Can we make radio engineering 'sexy'?  Maybe a charismatic Chief Engineer at Radio Weatherfield?) In blunt terms, she felt far too many students were pursuing subjects they were unlikely to put to good use, and our all too rare graduates are simply being tempted abroad to countries where their jobs have the status they warrant. 

I’ve never been so persuaded by a talk. Carol invited you, if you work in the technical field, to volunteer to spend an hour in a school talking of what you do. As an ambassador, allow the kids to see what is possible - not least if you are talking at the school you went to. You could change the course of a child’s life.

In the U.K, there have not yet been cases of broadcasters being hacked, although a dozen US stations have suffered. Denis Onuoha from Arqiva is Chairman of the AIB Cyber Security Work Group. He reflected on the categories of cyber security threats, from computer network exploitation where your data is seized and used by ne'er-do-wells and about which you know little until they get in touch with their cheeky demands, to computer network attacks where you become aware with alarming speed. He reminded us of the Wannacry hack in May, where simply keeping PCs up to date with the latest patches would have helped.

Denis spoke of simple fixes, reiterating the recent changed guidance that you should use sufficiently complex passwords you can remember rather than silly ones you need to write down. Avoid the user-name 'admin' temptation too. That's just daft. You can't stop everything, said Denis, but window locks make your house less likely to be burgled than next door's.

He goes further, sending in 'red teams', disguised as cleaners or receptionists to test vulnerabilities, and even mock phishing emails to see who responds, and then patiently educates the red-faced would-be victims.

Object Based Audio is like baking a cake,according to Lauren Ward, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Salford. Rather than deliver the cake, you deliver the ingredients, a recipe and someone to mix them. If you don’t like raisins - just leave them out. In the radio world using object based techniques, a listener wanting fewer sound effects or quieter music, can adjust their personal mix. A great way of avoiding those TV complaints about mumbling actors. Do take part in her experiment at

An endearing presentation came from Scott McGerty from Spark, a community/student station in Sunderland. Knowing where his young audience spend their time, he wanted to stream live at no budget. With help from an assortment of phones, his wife’s iPad and then a web cam and an iRig, lo, his show was live on Facebook. For multiple cameras and a vision mix, he identified some useful open access software, and even fixed up talkback and graphic overlay. In short, he insisted that with little technical knowledge or cash - but with a lot of curiosity and experimentation - you can achieve a great deal.

How can you maintain a transmitter without killing yourself or others? Nigel Turner, RF Safety Officer for Arqiva, introduced us to the physics of EMW and how the body absorbs them. He knows. He’s been up a few masts in his time, sometimes in bad conditions. Whatever the weather, he said, it’s worse up a mast. He shared with us the perils of lone working, asbestos, working at heights, electricity and, of course, RF, which can cook you like a microwave oven.

His diagram reminded us of the size of wavelengths, with the Long Wave waves being about as long as a football pitch, and dainty VHF (FM) ones being the length of, well, a human being. No wonder we absorb RF energy, acting almost as a conveniently sized antenna. He reminded us that the ICNIRP guidance has now been effectively cemented into law as the CEMFAW regs 2016.

He finished by dressing up poor Dave Walters in full gear to demonstrate the precautions taken as an engineer scales the mast. You are harnessed, but, as Nigel pointed out, it still hurts if you fall.

Finally to that dark day of the Manchester Arena bombing. Ken Phillips, who's responsible for the team behind BBC radio's outside broadcasts shared the planning for the #OneLoveManchester benefit concert, described by some as ‘this generation’s Live Aid’.

He talked of the call which began the whole affair, and of his crucial initial task - planning food and accommodation for the technical team at the venue. Whatever happens, you need that. 

His colleague at Audio Factory, now the BBC’s platform for delivering audio over the internet joined in to explain how they got the signal round the country and indeed around the world, including Australia and the huge array of iHeart stations. He covered the challenges he routinely faces in generating the right flavours of audio packages for HTTP delivery; and also mentioned the latency which offered a serendipitous delay - meaning that presenters knew exactly what was going to happen before it did, resulting he noted, in an impressively slick performance from the Wireless Group presenter.

After a great fun quiz, hosted by the lovely Stephanie Hirst, the day closed - and engineers moved pub-wards to chat openly as engineers refreshingly do. 

A relevant, interesting and entertaining day - with an impressive array of speakers on an outstanding variety of topics. I was privileged to be asked to host once again. Well done to the committee for the best, and most highly-attended TechCon, and a special well done to Ann Charles. That team once again took the risk on their own shoulders and delivered a memorable and invaluable event for our industry. 

Thanks too to the IET for holding out a warm hand of welcome in honour of our forefathers who passed through the door of your impressive building almost a hundred years ago.

I’m not an engineer and not as clever as they are. If you notice anything factually awry in the above, drop me a note and I’ll correct immediately. 

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.


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