Sunday, September 13, 2009

Solid service on I-75 in Atlanta

Visiting Atlanta multiple times recently, I have had great success with Tuner2 Internet radio on iPhone each time. Most recently, my rental was some kind of "crossover" vehicle from Chrysler with absolutely no headroom. However, it did have the requisite AUX jack, so I plugged in and listened contentedly getting to my meetings around the city. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, though, AT&T makes its home in Atlanta, so I would hope that in their home city, they would be solid. (Of course, we have seen home town apathy before...)

Side note, during a brief sojourn onto the FM dial, I heard a commercial from Comcast. In Atlanta, are offering their High-Speed 2go (awkward spelling) bundling 4G, 3G, and home cable into a single bill. $50/month for the cable + 4G, $70/month for cable + 4G + 3G for roaming. Pretty good pricing. Of course, it is only available in a couple cities so far.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Stinky Steers Suppliment Stinky Signal

More local reporting. I continue to be amazed that AT&T has such poor signal down the I-5 corridor. Folks may say it is "just me," but as I drove by the feed lots north of Coalinga, the signal was still a typical jumpy mess. Sometimes, it even read "no service," meaning no voice or data! After about 20 minutes of trying to let it find a stable spot, I gave up and went back to iPod. For those who might think that it is just the car, that seems highly unlikely. I have had the same results in a PT Cruiser and a Toyota Sienna - two vehicles with what I have to imagine are very different EM profiles.

Let's see if AT&T can improve this highly trafficked corridor.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Flash streaming on iPhone?

Yes, you read the headline right, and it is true. Modulation Index, the folks that have been making radio stations sound better for over 30 years, has released a new version of their Internet radio player on Apple iPhone that supports audio streaming using Flash on iPhone.

So, why is that important? Because it solves three problems: audio quality and reliability, economy of scale, and interactivity.

Problem 1 is audio quality & reliability. Quality is determined by two factors, audio quality per bit and transport overhead. Today, the vast majority of what you hear on iPhone is MP3 over Shoutcast. Some folks have found a way to get HE AAC v1 over Shoutcast using the iPhone built-in decoder. But to get a reliable listening experience on iPhone while driving, you can't send your stream at more than 32Kbps. 24Kbps is even better. And as much as I love HE AAC v1, taking it down to 32Kbps is pushing it (and MP3 at 32Kbps sounds like garbage.) That means you need HE AAC v2, which is only possible if your iPhone app licenses a good codec from a reliable source. (Don't get me started on the low-quality of FAAD2.) That solved the codec problem, but the transport issue was still there. I also love Shoutcast, but it was never intended as a mobile streaming protocol. It works great when the connection is relatively reliable, but it frays at the edges when you get dropouts. HE AAC v2 delivered over RTMP, the Flash Media Server protocol, addresses both issues. You get a high-quality codec delivered on a reliable transport. A solid sound that will make the most demanding station GM proud. Problem 1 solved.

Problem 2 is economy of scale. Even though mobile streaming is becoming popular, it still doesn't have the cume of desktop listeners. That means stations had to either set up a separate server to reach mobile or they had to shoehorn their PC stream. Now that Flash streaming with HE AAC v2 is availble on iPhone, stations don't have to choose. They can have a single stream to serve Windows, Mac, and iPhone, reducing overhead and mangement requirements. It also means that stations can pick from a wider variety of CDNs, giving them control over their own destiny. Problem 2 solved.

Problem 3 is interactivity. As much as it might offend the purists (most of the time, I think I fall into that camp,) radio stations need visuals and interactivity to help differentiate Internet radio. By supporting the Flash streaming protocol and establishing a format for advertising and albumart metadata, the Modulation Index solution gives stations the ability stream album art with clickable "buy now" links as well as synchronized graphics for audio ads, again with click-through on iPhone, on Windows, and on Mac. Problem 3 solved.

The barriers keep falling and the industry is evolving ever more mature solutions to make Internet radio a real business. Given that we are 10 years into this endeavor, I am glad to see it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Funny Culture of Free

Walk with me for a moment and consider the following...

Imagine you are a person interested in HD Radio radio (a bit far fetched, I know, but stick with me). You have heard stations in your area talk about their great digital quality on HD Radio and their additional programming choices on HD2 and HD3, and you want to hear it. So you go into Best Buy and head to the car audio section. You see a nice HD Radio receiver and take it over to the counter. The person scans it and says, "$99 plus tax please." "$99? What a deal!"

You also happen to have an iPhone. You visit the app store and see two Internet radio players. One is free but uses old codecs (or pirated open-source codecs) and won't stream anything but the most rudamentary formats. The other costs a few bucks but has professional grade audio quality and supports the wide variety of content formats out there. Which one do you choose? The free one, of course! Because Internet radio should be free, right? Even if it sounds crappy, it is better to be free and crappy than cost a couple bucks and sound good.

What is wrong with this picture? The person is willing to pay for a limited piece of hardware that gives them access to only 30 new low-quality broadcasts that may not even come in clearly where they live, but they are not willing to pay a couple of bucks to get a well crafted piece of software that gives them quality access to 100s and 1000s of stations across the Web.

Let us walk some more and consider this next scenario..

You are the GM of a major broadcast radio station. Your boss at headquarters is all excited about HD Radio, so you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert your station to HD even though you know there are more transmitters than radios in the market. People want choice, people want digital quality, so even though HD Radio gives you neither, you do it because HD is the "salvation of broadcast radio." During this process, you scream at your engineers because unless they tweak the HD signal just right, it impacts the quality of your analog FM. And if you have learned only one thing in your career, its that quality is critical.

Soon after, some funny thingamajig called an iPhone comes out. In a short time, nearly 50 million people have this iPhone or its slightly deprived younger brother, the iPod touch. Your boss hears the buzz again and says "get us on the iPhone." You call up the professionals and they say "you should use the modern MPEG-4 HE AAC v2 codec over Flash Media Server or 3GPP. That way you can have high-fidelity sound and reliable delivery to all those iPhone listeners." But after seeing their relatively modest price quote for the encoder or the iPhone software, you say "no way!" The Internet is cheap and the Internet is free. Why should I spend money to stream on the Web and to iPhones? It's not as important as my broadcast signal, so I can cut corners. So to save a couple thousand bucks, you use "free" streaming tools and low fidelity codecs to stream to the iPhone, giving your listeners ear fatigue and and continuous drop outs.

What is wrong with this picture? This GM is willing to spend a huge sum of money to chase the HD Radio wild goose and flames his engineers over FM quality issues but is unwilling to spend a couple thousand bucks to give his listeners a high-quality experience over what is the future of his station - the 500M streaming-ready mobile phones already in the market.

The moral of the story.

The free culture of the Internet is going to kill itself eventually. People get what they pay for. Radio Paradise and SomaFM are only here because their listeners love them enough to pay and support them. Ad supported Internet radio is only here because people listen to and act on the advertising. Adobe Flash CS4 is only around because enough people pay for it.

The irony is that many times people pay for stuff that is crappy and snub paying for stuff that is good, just because they think that everything on the Internet should be free. I am using HD Radio as an example, just because it is easy to knock, but the same faulty logic is being applied to any physical vs. virtual purchase. People are willing to pay $8 for a latte and a muffin, but they gripe at an $8 iPhone app. What's up with that?

Bottom line: if nobody pays, then nothing will get produced.

As the Internet evolves, I hope that quality cheap trumps crappy free because people are willing to pay a little for quality. The world will be a much sweeter sounding place.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Adjusting the signal

The other day I was driving and I noticed a change in my behavior. On my way to a regular destination, I chose to go a different route. Not really longer, just different. Turns out my reasoning was to avoid a hole in the 3G coverage that I noticed awhile back. I have become seriously attached to my Radio Paradise sessions in the car and I don't want to miss anything, even while running errands. My mental routing engine knows that and plans accordingly.

Internet radio in the car has now become part of my subconscious pattern. Radio has become visceral again, part of my life. I like that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to Cupertino...

Arrived in San Jose and got the standard rental car from Thrifty. This time an exciting Seabring... be still my heart! Anyway, as with the other rentals I have had this month, this one had a AUX jack, so it was "Internet radio ready." I plugged in my iPhone running Tuner2 and headed out.

Driving around the South Bay, I tested 101, 85, 280, Lawrence Expressway, and Montague Expressway. The experience was flawless, with two surprising exceptions. First, it dropped out briefly around 85 at El Camino, center of the commute path for folks heading to Google, MSFT, and the other companies in Mountain View.  

The second, however, was even more odd. Heading down 280 south at DeAnza, the radio dropped from 3G to Edge to nothing. Those in the know will recognize the location as being right outside Apple HQ in Cupertino! A friend suggested that the failure was due to heavy usage within Apple. That may be the case, but it is pretty odd. Area in La Jolla near Qualcomm HQ must have at least as much usage, but I haven't experienced failure around there yet. 

It appears that Apple and AT&T need a little more cooperation. 

Even with the dropouts, though, I must say that they were brief and definitely provided an experience as least as good as satellite radio.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cruising to Palm Springs

A brief post for a brief trip. Went out to Palm Springs last weekend. Tuner2 App on iPhone worked great. As usual, signal died at the top of the 241 toll road. Also had brief signal trouble on California Hwy 60 going through the hills outside of Moreno Valley. Overall, though, it was smooth sailing. On a two hour trip, the interruptions accumulated to at most 5 minutes of silence. If only AT&T would get on the job and fix those holes!

For those who find these signal gaps a reason to dismiss the readiness of Internet radio in the car, I offer the following advice. Next time you listen to FM radio, listen carefully. You will soon hear dropouts in those same rural regions where your mobile signal fades. KPCC is the only reason I listen to broadcast radio in LA. As soon as I enter those same hilly areas where I lost signal on my iPhone, the FM signal gets fuzzy and sometimes even drops off. It would be interesting to have a sponsored study where someone drives around and records audio quality and reliability of an FM signal compared to the audio quality of that same station delivered over Internet. I am thinking that they won't be so different on the reliability front and the audio quality front will be heavily in favor of the Internet station.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Celebration in Chicago

On Monday, the new Tuner2 iPhone app finally showed up on the app store. Very nice! Modulation Index has done a great job putting it together with a focus on high-fidelity, reliability, and ease of use.

The day found me in Chicago driving a rented Ford Focus. Although not equipped with Sync, this one did have the requisite power plug (the politically correct term for a cigarette lighter receptacle present in every vehicle on the planet) and 1/8" aux jack (present now in most modern vehicles.) Driving around Chicago-land, I was streaming 24Kbps and even 64Kbps radio stations on Tuner2 without a hitch. Sweet!

Another city tested positive for Internet radio in the car.

Friday, April 24, 2009

More motion in the Mojave.

Another month, another trip to Las Vegas. This time to NAB. The best news is that the Tuner2 app for iPhone is now complete, so I got to test the release version across the desert. Being my third time this year (CES, CTIA, and now NAB), I have been able to compare the relative performance of Internet radio on my iPhone across the Mojave desert. Interestingly, each time has been better.

There is still a gap for about 40 miles after Ft. Irwin towards Baker on I-15. However, outside of that gap, it is 3G streaming all the way! I was able to tune into Radio Paradise up the Cajon Pass without a hitch. Starting south of Baker (well before the famous Zzyzx Road), I was able to jam all the way to Las Vegas with only minor breaks a couple times in the deepest parts of the desert. It appears that AT&T is constantly improving their network.

One caveat, (and maybe a minor bit of bragging), you won't get this kind of performance from just any Internet radio app on iPhone. You need one that has a persistent retry mechanism and one that has a high-quality MPEG-4 aacPlus decoder. With those two features, a 24Kbps stream sounds great through your speakers and rides through the bandwidth sags without audible rebuffering. Most of the iPhone apps that claim support for aacPlus (aka HE AAC, AAC+, etc.) use the open source FAAD2 decoder. That decoder has very poor performance and sounds terrible at low bit rates. (Personally, I don't think it even sounds that good at 64Kbps.) Since the Tuner2 iPhone app uses the commercial FhG decoder and the Modulation Index reconnect scheme, the audio quality and reliability are very high.

With all this talk about the desert, I don't want to forget to mention that the app still performs like a champ all around the LA metro area, delivering an experience superior to either satellite or HD Radio. Now that aacPlus is finally starting to show up in iPhone apps, car listening reliability will pass through the critical threshold for a broad audience. Pandora and AOL Radio still use 64Kbps MP3 on the go, so their audio quality in the car is marginal both on the decode and on the bandwidth usage. Once stations start to use 32Kbps MPEG-4 aacPlus, Internet radio in the car will really start to come into its own.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

IP Dead Zone: San Joaquin Valley

Another week, another chance to test 3G Internet radio outside of the metros. This time, I motored north and south on California's main artery, I-5. Given my experience in the Mojave, I was optimistic about the Central Valley. It is more heavily used and shoots like an arrow through flat farmland surrounded by hills and peaks. I thought that this corridor is worth at least the same level of 3G infrastructure investment as I-95 on the east coast.

I was wrong.

I expected spotty connectivity going through the Angeles National Forest beyond Santa Clarita. What I did not expect is that things got even worse past Grapevine.

After you get down into the Valley, the next three hours are pure IP hell, just enough tease to fill the buffer then go dark as soon as you start to enjoy the song. AT&T, Sprint, it didn't matter, both networks had very poor coverage. Someone suggested switching my iPhone to EDGE-only to keep swapping at a minimum, but that didn't help. So I hiccuped my way, teeth on edge, up what certainly feels like the fastest stretch of freeway in the USA.

Turning west at Los Banos, connectivity returned at Gilroy and performed beautifully for the remainder of my time all across the Bay Area.

The moral of the story: Internet radio in the car is ready for prime time in the metros, but not in the rural areas.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Driving to Vegas with Radio Paradise

We are just about finished with our new iPhone app for Tuner2. (More on that interesting tidbit in a later post.) It performs flawlessly around the LA basin where AT&T 3G coverage is good. The question is, though, how would it perform in the middle of the Mojave? Since I had to head to CES anyway, I got the chance to find out.

Last year going to NAB 2008, I created a baseline for myself using the Sprint phone. Its performance was pretty spotty once you left the metro. The Tuner2 app on iPhone was a completely different story. I won't say it was flawless, but I was able to listen to Radio Paradise (24Kbps aacPlus) with only 1 or 2 hiccups going up the Cajon pass and all the way out to Fort Irwin/Yermo and the agriculture checkpoint.

After that, I had to take a break to make some phone calls. Similar to the Sprint experience, the iPhone was pretty spotty once I returned, but picked up again at Baker and was solid once more when I came into view of the Nevada state line. Driving around Las Vegas to and from the show, it was just as solid as "normal" broadcast radio. (Broadcast radio, BTW, crackles more than you think if you pay attention to it.)

It is interesting to note that the performance of the Tuner2 iPhone app is inverted from Sirius XM satellite radio receivers. In the urban areas, the scatter creates dead zones for sat radio (especially for Sirius, which seems to have a weaker ground repeater network.) I was in a rental car near Washington DC recently and the sat radio in the car went silent as I waited for the light to change under an overpass. In the desert, the lack of obstructions gives you good sat radio reception. For 3G (AT&T and Sprint alike) the urban areas are well covered and things get spotty when you head out into the desert or rural areas.

Of course, in the end there is no comparison since we spend most of our time driving in the metros and more importantly, the variety of what you can get via the Internet far eclipses the programming on satellite radio.