BBC internet radio streams join race to the bottom

Digital Radio; photo by Stephen Martin, used under terms of a Creative Commons licenceI 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:

http://a.files.bbci.co.uk/media/live/manifesto/audio/simulcast/hls/uk/sbr_high/ak/bbc_radio_three.m3u8

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.

10 responses to “BBC internet radio streams join race to the bottom”

  1. Jonathan Rawle

    Updates this lunchtime:

    I have also been in touch with my MP, who happens to be Ed Vaizey, the minister responsible for media, culture and everything digital. He was unaware of the changes, and is going to ask his team at the DCMS to look into it.

  2. Jonathan Rawle

    Update 2: the Radio 3 320 kb/s AAC stream has been made available again as a SHOUTcast steam. See the BBC Internet Blog for details.

  3. Nicholas Ellis

    I have two WIFI radios, a Roberts Stream83i and a Logtech. To my absolute dismay from to-day I can no longer get anything from the BBC. On their Website the Beeb claims that “they are talking to the manufacturers ” whatever that may mean. I have had some contact with the Beeb when they decided to limit their satellite footprint to the UK, but it was made quite clear that as an expat and non-licence payer my thoughts were wholly irrelevant. This in spite of the fact that I wrote that I would have been perfectly willing to pay some sort of Radio licence fee . Radio 4 in particular is such a vital lifeline to me here in Sweden…

    What to do? HELP!

    “And peoples shall speak unto peoples”. So much for Lord Rioeth’s noble ideals.

    nicholas e

    I am absolutely lost & generally THICK in the technical jargon of the internet etc.. Does anyone have any simple advice they can give me in this matter ?

  4. Jonathan Rawle

    I haven’t heard of any more changes at the BBC end that would have taken effect today.

    I’ll try to keep this simple. What Logitech device do you have? Do you know how to log into the website for your Roberts radio, to allow you to enter your own stations, make lists of favourites, etc.? If you are unsure, this should be explained in the manual.

  5. Lanthar

    The BBC is the dominant player in many different kinds of radio. And not only in the UK, but in the market of international radio, the BBC is by far the number one. The proof is that after this mess, the BBC has strength to force everybody and all radio manufacturers to bin their radios and come with new ones that are compatible with the BBC. Any other radio content producer could not exercise such a force on the audience as in the manufacturers. In reality, the BBC is abusing it dominant position. As explain here, it is moving its content to its own channel of distribution, when as a dominant player who receives State aid to gain that dominance, it is oblige to provide distribution (for payment) on any channel requested. It is also kicking out of the market the agregators, so manufacturers will have to sign an agreement with the BBC to be able to access its own BBC application (for payment). The BBC is becoming the Microsoft of radio. With a lot of vision, and just as Google did with Chrome, it has taken out Apple, Microsoft out of the streaming market (as it already did with RealAudio in the past) to take a free format, that it making its own: the DASH format (just like Google did with Chrome). Like MIcrosoft, Google or Apple, the BBC has realised that the future is not FM, and much less DAB. When it comes to radio the future is IP, that is the internet. If this was a private company, I could probably understand it. But when this is done with State aid from the government, it is disgusting.

  6. Ian J

    Erm…the correct quote is…

    ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation’…not as it grossly misquoted above.

    Problem with all this technology is its obsolete as soon as it reaches your local branch of PC World or whichever other retailer you choose to shop at.

    As to the quality of BBC Radio on the Freeview platform…what’s wrong with it? It is devoid of interference…comes in loud and clear…and is silent…no hiss/crackle/pop – any probs you may have probably come from the use of a poor quality (or misaligned) aerial and’or the use of a cheap coax download cable.

    If you want to download and listen to BBC Radio progs at some later time get IDM…just google it…you’ll find it. BBC Radio files show up as FLV Video…in case you wondered. Use IDM to download BBC TV progs in HD too…but that is another story.

  7. Jonathan Rawle

    BBC Radio on Freeview is currently acceptable – 160 kbps joint stereo. It’s Classic FM and other commercial stations that are rather poor, at 64 kbps mono. It’s important to separate the issue of poor reception, and the underlying quality of the broadcast. I’m discussing the latter. Even with perfect reception, 64 kbps MP2 sounds terrible on any half-decent hi-fi equipment.

    I’m aware of software for downloading BBC radio and TV shows. It still doesn’t enable you to press a few buttons on your hi-fi remote to select the episode to listen to. What it does show, however, it that the effect of all this digital rights management is to get in the way of legitimate users accessing the service conveniently. People who want to download and/or illegally distribute content will always find ways around it.

  8. Danny Houghton

    I have stumbled on the above thread looking for anything that will tell me which stand alone network music players will access the BBC’s shiny new Hi-Def radio stations. What the BBC have done is clearly arrogant and wrong, but we are now several months on and I was hoping that at least some manufacturers would have by now dealt with the issue. No-one I have e-mailed has responded with anything approaching common sense. Does anyone have access to a list of BBC compatible players?

  9. Jonathan Rawle

    I don’t know of a definitive list. Part of the problem is that the BBC won’t release one. However, Naim products apparently now support the HLS streams:
    http://www.whathifi.com/news/listeners-complain-about-changes-to-bbc-internet-radio-streaming
    Also, some Pure internet radios were upgraded to add support:
    http://www.radio-now.co.uk/buy_wifi_internet_radios.htm
    Other than that, they won’t work on most equipment. Marantz announced that their popular MCR-510/610 streamers couldn’t be upgraded to support HLS. They have just announced replacements for these, the MCR-511/611, but from the manual it seems these won’t support HLS either.

    If you are at all technically minded, for live radio, I suggest installing Minimstreamer on a Raspberry Pi. Once it’s installed, the RPi can sit attached to your router, transparently converting the streams to something you hifi can understand. Catch-up radio is much more tricky, though.
    http://minimstreamer.com/

  10. Nicholas Riley

    I’m hoping that these changes will prove to be good once the dust settles.
    On a selfish note, I am hoping that SONOS will be able to fix the current poor BBC radio service supplied via TuneIn

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