Classic FM HD stream

For the latest post in my occasional series about digital radio, I was intrigued to receive an e-mail from Classic FM this week advertising “HD audio” in their mobile app. There are versions of the app for Apple and Android devices, and they allow users to listen to live broadcasts, as well as to a library of on-demand programmes from the last week. I have never used the app, so was unaware of what bitrate it offered to start off with. I decided to examine it to discover what this “HD sound” actually is.

The Classic FM app

The Classic FM app

When it first launches, with “HD off”, the app streams the low bitrate, 48kb/s AAC stream from the usual “musicradio” Icecast server. The details of those streams are unchanged since that article was written in 2012, except that the 48kb/s MP3 stream no longer exists. Most people wanting a low-bitrate stream are better off using the higher quality AAC anyway.

Switching to HD requires logging in with a Classic FM account. However, rather than using the old 128kb/s MP3 stream, the app fetches a new, 192kb/s AAC stream at the URL /ClassicFMHD. Unfortunately, this stream can not simply be used from within a PC’s media player or internet radio. It requires some sort of authentication so that only the official mobile app can make use of it. This follows the trend set by the BBC, where – officially at least – only website or mobile app users can receive the highest quality broadcasts for listening through their cheap ear buds, whereas people with high-end hi-fi equipment are supposed to be satisfied with 128kb/s DAB broadcasts. As with the BBC’s streams, it is possible to reverse engineer the Classic FM app and find a way to access the streams, although it isn’t straightforward to listen that way as it involves generating a URL that’s only valid for a short period. Given that it required reverse engineering, I am not going to publish details here, but anyone who is interested is welcome to contact me for more information.

As an aside, I should mention that I sometimes found when restarting the app that it streamed in HD mode from startup even though it said “HD off”. It required a toggle on and off to stream at a lower bitrate, a bug that could quickly eat up mobile users’ data allowances.

Is it actually worth the trouble of using the HD stream outside of the app? A look at the frequency spectrum of a typical broadcast (the end of Alfred Hill’s piano concerto – I hadn’t heard of him either!) immediately shows one disappointment. The frequency cut-off is still 15kHz. With 192kb/s AAC to play with, I would have thought that could be extended to 18kHz at least. This is probably more to do with the processing chain at Classic FM than a deliberate attempt to restrict the quality, but it’s as if they want to retain some features of FM broadcasts even when most people are no longer listening to analogue radio!

Spectrum of a Classic FM HD broadcast

Spectrum of a Classic FM HD broadcast

There are some subtle differences in the spectrum compared to the 128kb/s MP3 stream, but nothing compared to the difference between those and the low-bitrate AAC stream, which has plenty of holes and a much rougher appearance. That is only to be expected. To the ear, I do think the HD stream has the edge, with a slightly richer bass and more detail at high frequencies, although annoyingly it shows up the dynamic range compression of the advertisements far more. I hope they will further improve the stream in the future by adjusting the 15kHz low-pass filter. In the meantime, I’d reassure Classic FM listeners around the world that the MP3 stream is still one of the best ways to listen. Internet streaming is the clear winner when it comes to sound quality.

Renaming honours

Order of the British Empire Insignia, by Robert Prummel (CC licence)Former footballer Howard Gayle made headlines for a second time this week for declining an MBE, this time suggesting that the name of the honour should be changed to remove the reference to the British Empire.

It is important to remember that the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” is an order of chivalry, so named because it was instituted during the time of the British Empire by King George V. The name is not supposed to imply that it is an honour awarded by the British Empire, any more than the Order of the Bath implies that its members are the ones who assist the Queen in bathing.

Having said that, it’s hard not to have sympathy with Mr Gayle’s view, and he is not the only one to object to an honour on the grounds of its name. Back in 2004, a committee of MPs looked into the honours system, and recommended changing the name to the “Order of British Exellence”. They reasoned that it needed to retain the same abbreviations, MBE, OBE, etc. as everyone was familiar with these, and that otherwise existing recipients would feel their honour was outdated and worth less than newer ones. One commentator at the time remarked that it sounded more like an award from a trade organisation. Quite apart from the suggested name sounding ridiculous, orders of chivalry can not just have their names changed like that. They could institute a new order, and if desired stop appointing people to the old one, but our history should not be messed around with, and I would have expected members of parliament to be better informed.

Other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have stopped appointing to the Order of the British Empire and instituted new, alternative orders. Existing recipients retained their old honours and postnominals such as OBE, and it seems there was no confusion or feeling that older awards were devalued. Rather than mess about with historic orders, why not create a new one? As we now have the longest-serving monarch in history, what better name than the Royal Elizabethan Order, taking the Royal Victorian Order as its precedent? It could have the same ranks as the Order of the British Empire, and postnominals ending either “EO” or “RE”. The former would match the Victorian Order, but MRE, ORE, etc. would look more similar to MBE, OBE, which would perhaps go some way towards placating people such as the MPs on that committee.

The Queen has said that she doesn’t want to see any changes to her grandfather’s Order during her reign. What better way to commemorate the Queen’s reign, whenever in the future it finally comes to an end, than by instituting a new order of chivalry in her name?

TV licensing: i-Playing fair enough

iplayerThe date has finally been set after which users of the BBC iPlayer catch-up TV service will require a TV Licence. From 1 September, viewers will need to have a licence if they are to use iPlayer legally, just as they do to watch live television. I think that is fair enough. The only reason a licence hasn’t been needed up until now is because catch-up services didn’t exist when the legislation was drafted.

Last year, I questioned which services such a law would apply to. An important principle of the TV Licence is that it is required in order to watch any television, even though the money is used specifically to fund the BBC; it is not considered desirable to think of it as a subscription to the BBC. However, in the event, the change in the law has been framed in such a way that it only applies to BBC catch-up services, in other words iPlayer. As I said last year, it is very hard to define what constitutes a catch-up TV service as opposed to an online video sharing site such as Youtube, so it is not entirely surprising that the scope of the law has been limited. Whether it is the first step on a slippery slope to a subscription model remains to be seen.

One question that has cropped up is how the new law will be enforced. Now, I don’t believe laws should be broken just because they are hard to enforce and people can get away with it. The law is the law, and citizens have a responsibility to abide by it. Having said that, I don’t think the BBC’s TV Licensing arm can possibly know whether someone using iPlayer has a TV Licence or not. It seems, for the time being at least, that there will be no log-in required, no need to enter a licence number to watch a programme. That actually puts iPlayer catch-up in the same situation as its live streams. With those, there is a warning that a licence is required, but no further measures to prevent it being watched illegally.

Some people have suggested that it will be easy to trace people using iPlayer without a licence as the IP addresses of all users can be logged. While it is true that they can log IP addresses, this won’t tell them anything about who is using that IP address. Only the viewer’s ISP knows who an IP address corresponds to at a given time, and there is no requirement for them to disclose that to the BBC or anyone else. When copyright holders have wanted to clamp down on people unlawfully downloading films, for example, they have had to obtain court orders to force ISPs to hand over the details of people behind the IP addresses from which they had detected the files being downloaded. Obtaining a court order is likely to be a costly and laborious process, so only the worst offenders have been targeted. Compare that to the matter of unlicensed online TV watching. Unlike dodgy downloads – which no-one should be using – most people using iPlayer will have a TV Licence, and will be doing so perfectly legally. How, therefore, can TV Licensing even know which users to obtain a court order for in the first place? They can’t ask for details of all the millions of iPlayer users. Not only would that be impractical, it would also be totally disproportionate, as the vast majority of people they were obtaining details for would be doing nothing wrong. The bottom line is, there is no way for the BBC to know who is using iPlayer, and whether those people are licensed, unless they require some sort of log-in, and that applies equally to the live streams.

As an aside, I have noticed comments online suggesting the solution to the above is to use “encryption”. I feel there is some confusion here between encryption and authentication. Traditionally, broadcast pay-TV, for example satellite TV, has been encrypted to stop non-subscribers from watching it. After all, anyone with a dish can pick the transmissions up. Internet catch-up TV is different. As a simplification, the video is effectively sent to each user separately as it is requested. The only consequence of it being unencrypted is that it would be possible to snoop on what someone was watching if you were listening in to their internet connection. You would have to watch the same programme as the person you were spying on at exactly the same time, rather defeating the point of catch-up TV! Stopping people from watching without a licence actually requires authentication: either the input of a TV Licence number, or a login to an account associated with a licence. The password/licence number would be encrypted when it was sent, as it should be any log-in credentials used online; the video itself need not be encrypted, as this would just add unnecessary overheads.

It will be interesting to see whether any sort of log-in does eventually appear on iPlayer. In the meantime, I’m fairly certain they have no way of knowing whether viewers are licensed or not, and they will need to rely on the public’s integrity, backed up by threatening letters from an army of TV Licensing officers, if a significant number of additional viewers are to pay for a licence.

Corbyn must go

Jeremy Corbyn, April 2016

Corbyn: Students’ Union politics

When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader last year, it seemed rather like a sideshow to the “real” politics in the country. It was mildly amusing to see him politely ask questions e-mailed by the public at Prime Minister’s Questions, with David Cameron politely answering. More recently, the weekly sparring session returned more to its usual format, but Corbyn’s performance has been at best mediocre.

Our political system needs an effective opposition in order to function. Someone has to hold the government to account, challenge them, and provide a viable alternative administration. Amusing as Corbyn’s incumbency may have seemed at first, even back then it simply wasn’t healthy for our democracy to have him as Leader of the Opposition. Even the most ardent Tory must surely see that it isn’t in the best interests of the country to have such a poorly functioning Labour party.

Now, however, the country is facing one if its gravest challenges after the referendum vote to leave the European Union. The Conservative government is now likely to be taken over by right wingers who will further damage the country by taking us as far from Europe as possible. We need an opposition to challenge that, and to offer an alternative vision at any future election.

Jeremy Corbyn is not the right person to lead such an opposition. Not only is he a weak leader out of his depth; it’s no secret that his heart has never been in remaining in the EU either. Like all traditional left wingers, Corbyn would rather we left the EU, hence his lacklustre performance during the referendum campaign, which certainly had an impact on the final result.

Yesterday, Corbyn’s right hand man, John McDonnell, said that we must accept the result of the referendum, and appeared to imply that freedom of movement should end as a result of the vote. He later backtracked slightly, stressing this wasn’t Labour party policy, but he had already shown his true colours. On Europe, Corbyn and McDonnell could be singing from the same hymn sheet as the most right-wing anti-EU Tories.

Corbyn and his team have never really been interested in leading a serious, national political party, or at least have never realised that is what they are supposed to be doing. Instead, they pursue their own minority, left-wing policies. Corbyn might be suited to the post of a Students’ Union president, but not for Prime Minister of the country.

As someone who has never joined any political party or been a firm voter or supporter one way or the other, I’m sure many people across the country will agree with me when I say Jeremy Corbyn has to go. We need an effective opposition for the sake of our country at this difficult time.

Why give some people more democracy than others?

Oxford with EU flagThe UK’s vote narrowly to leave the EU was not uniform across the country. For example, in London, nearly 60% of people voted to remain in the EU. In Scotland, 62% voted to remain. And in Oxfordshire, nearly 57% of people wanted to stay.

However, in the post-referendum fall-out, it seems only one of these areas may be given a chance to remain part of the EU. It is likely that the Scottish government will now seek to hold yet another referendum on Scottish independence, sold as a way for Scotland to remain in the EU. The question is, why should people in Scotland be given this choice, while those of us who live in other pro-EU parts of the country are denied the same opportunity?

How can anyone who claims to support democracy, and who believes in not being isolationist, think that the answer is to go it alone, to abandon the rest of the people in the UK who share the same view? It’s “I’m all right, Jack” mentality. Surely democracy is universal? Everyone should be given the same chances to vote on the same issues.

The referendum question was whether the UK should remain a member of the EU. There is no mention of Scotland or any other part of the UK. Even if Scotland were to become independent and to be allowed to join the EU (which is far from certain), the 62% of Scottish voters still would not be getting what they voted for. They voted to the UK to remain in the EU. As over two thirds of Scottish exports are to the rest of the UK, but only about 15% to the EU, leaving the UK in favour of the EU would appear to be a rash decision. It is actually in Scotland’s best interest for the whole of the UK to remain in the EU, or at least the single market. It’s therefore slightly heartening to see this morning that Nicola Sturgeon has suggested the Scottish Parliament could block the UK’s exit from the EU. The people of London and Oxfordshire would be grateful for that.

The irony is that Scottish nationalists were always traditionally in favour of leaving the EU. Today, at least a third of those who support independence actually would like to leave the EU. Yet it is hard to imagine them voting against independence in a future referendum on the grounds that they don’t want to be in the EU. Calls for a second Scottish referendum are therefore pure opportunism.

Please, let’s have the best possible outcome for the sake of all of us across the UK who do not agree with isolationism and selfishness, whether that’s by blocking exit from the EU, or by negotiating to retain as many of the benefits of Europe as possible. Otherwise, the people of Oxfordshire want their independence referendum, too.


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