I shouldn’t have tempted fate. At the end of my article on the poor sound quality of Freeview radio, I mentioned that internet streams are much better, singling out BBC Radio 3 for broadcasting at 320 kb/s. Little did I know, the BBC were just about to switch that stream off.
The BBC had announced a few months ago that they were going to discontinue streaming in Windows Media (WMA) format. Despite following developments in digital radio, I was unaware of this. The announcement was hidden in a blog deep inside the BBC website. Even people who had seen the announcement failed to realise the full implications of it. Not only were the BBC planning to remove the WMA streams. They were also going to switch off all streams broadcast using the SHOUTcast platform, which included the high quality AAC streams.
Now, they have replaced SHOUTcast with streams broadcast using HTTP live streaming (HLS). This is a format apparently preferred by Apple, and appears in effect to comprise a playlist that sends the broadcast to the client in chunks. Through this protocol, a 320 kb/s version of Radio 3 is still available via the Flash-based iPlayer on the BBC website. In fact, similarly high quality versions of all the other BBC radio stations are now available. The problem is, no standalone devices currently support this method of streaming. Despite the BBC’s claims to have talked to manufacturers over the last year, it seems highly unlikely that existing hi-fis and radios will be upgraded to support it, as it requires significantly more processing power, due to the need to stitch together the different chunks and do some processing.
As a stop-gap measure, the BBC have left just one SHOUTcast version of the stream for each of their national radio stations. These are in 128 kb/s MP3. While this is comparable to commercial internet stations, it is a step backwards for BBC Radio. Radio 3 in “HD audio” is no more. To make matters worse, they say these streams will be available for “another year or two”. After that, it will be HLS or nothing, which will render all current internet radio devices obsolete a far as BBC Radio is concerned.
Lots of listeners are very unhappy with the changes, as can be seen from comments on the BBC blog. Let’s look at some of the other issues with the BBC’s move:
- As the MP3s contain no digital rights management, the BBC’s “listen again” facility is no longer available on internet radios. Anyone who bought such a set to catch up on programmes they miss will no longer be able to find many of the programmes as of this week.
- There is only one version of the MP3 stream to cater for both UK and overseas listeners. Any programmes where the BBC only has rights to broadcast in the UK, for example sports coverage, can not now be broadcast over internet radio. I wonder if this may even apply to certain Proms concerts – I know there have been issues with licensing some Broadway musicals in the past.
- Some internet radios designed for use by blind and partially sighted people have stopped working.
- People listening on the move also have to use the 128 kb/s MP3 streams, no lower bandwidth version is available.
- In the future, BBC stations will not be listed on internet radio aggregation sites alongside broadcasters from around the world, diminishing the standing of the BBC.
- Even the name Audio Factory is badly chosen, as it is already the name of a production company that has nothing to do with the project, and is no doubt now receiving calls from irate BBC listeners. Ironically, they have even done work for the BBC in the past! If the BBC can’t even check the name of a project, can we trust them to check the project won’t negatively affect consumers?
Is it fair that the BBC can suddenly decide to stop providing a service to everyone who owns an internet radio? While it’s true that anyone can listen to the BBC via a computer, many people still want to sit in their lounge and listen in high quality through good speakers. People will have bought radios so that they can just switch them on and listen ion the kitchen, without having to log on to a laptop, start a browser, find the BBC website, etc. If internet radio is ever going to enter the mainstream as a consumer product, it has to work on consumer devices in the living room.
Another problem is that if the BBC can get away with disenfranchising internet radio owners, the commercial broadcasters are bound to follow. Of course, foreign broadcasters may also switch. I had actually encountered HLS before when I tried to listen to Taiwanese station e-classical, although I didn’t know it was HLS at the time.
There are a few workarounds. The community of people supporting the Squeezebox network players have already produced a plugin to play the HLS streams. However, that’s very much an exception as it is open source, easy to modify the firmware, and powerful enough to do the necessary processing. Is it also possible to use software such as VLC to re-stream the broadcast as a standard stream which can then be fed into a device. The BBC have even tried to hinder developments such as there by keeping the stream URLs secret, deleting them from the comments section of their blog. However, they are widely available online. The Radio 3 stream, for example is:
I have wondered about the longevity of internet radio before. However, my concerns were about the aggregator sites that all standalone devices rely on, such as Reciva or vTuner. There is usually no way to enter a URL directly. Sets rely on being able to download a database of stations from a server, and if the server no longer exists, the internet radio will no longer function. But I had never anticipated the streams themselves being switched to a format that could not be played on existing hardware.
One other thought comes to mind. If it can be acceptable for the BBC to switch the format of their internet steams to render them unplayable on people’s radios, why can’t they do the same for their DAB broadcasts? At least then we might benefit from DAB+ instead of the outdated DAB system. Somehow, I doubt the changes have been made with the consumer in mind at all.