The Problem with HD Radio

Here are five obstacles facing HD Radio as it currently stands

A passenger reaches over to adjust the HD radio.

  Kwanchai Lerttanapunyaporn / Getty Images

As the sole digital radio broadcast technology sanctioned for use in the United States, HD Radio has gained a decent chunk of fans since it first launched in 2003. However, even as a considerable number of new cars are being manufactured with HD radio, a lot of drivers simply don't know or don't care about the technology. Whether this is due to the decline in radio generally or problems inherent to the technology behind HD Radio is not clear.

But here are five of the biggest obstacles HD Radio is facing.

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Slow Adoption

classic car radio
Slow adoption of HD radio tech by broadcasters is a numbers game. The market for analog radio is vast and lucrative, while cars equipped with HD radio tuners are still relatively small in number.

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HD radio has been around for a long time, and it increasingly comes standard in new vehicles. In 2013, one in three cars sold included an HD Radio tuner. By 2019, that figure climbed to more than half. But how many people actually listen to HD radio versus other media?

To compare, in 2012 about 34 percent of Americans reported listening to internet radio—including services like Pandora as well as online streams of AM and FM stations. Only 2 percent reported listening to HD Radio.

Another issue is the slow adoption of HD Radio broadcast technology by stations. If you live in an area with good HD Radio coverage, then this isn’t an issue. For those who live in areas served by few HD Radio stations, the technology might as well not exist.

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Carmakers Abandoning Radio

connected car
Some of the OEMs have indicated that they want to move away from radio and toward connected cars.

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At one point, the writing seemed to be on the wall for factory-installed radio tuners. In the early 2010s, several automakers were reportedly planning to remove all types of radios from their dashboards by 2014. That didn’t come to pass, and car radio seems to have received a stay of execution, but the picture is still somewhat muddy.

The radio industry and iBiquity, the makers of HD Radio, are reportedly working with big automakers to keep radio tuners in car stereos, but if the biggest names in the automotive industry decided to go another way, that could be it for HD Radio.

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Broadcast Interference

bad neighbors
Powerful HD radio stations don't always make for the best neighbors.

Nils Hendrik Mueller / Getty Images 

Due to the way that iBiquity’s in-band-on-channel (IBOC) technology works, stations that choose to use the tech broadcast their analog signals with two digital “sidebands” at the bottom and top of their allotted frequency.

If the power allotted to these sidebands is high enough, it can bleed into the frequencies immediately above or below, causing interference. When this happens, it can block users from listening to neighboring stations.

This has always been a problem with HD Radio, with powerful broadcasters causing reception problems for weaker or more distant stations.

In the same way that the digital sidebands can bleed into neighboring frequencies, they can also interfere with their own analog signal. This is a big problem because one of the chief selling points of IBOC is that it allows digital and analog signals to share the same frequency.

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Nobody Knows What HD Radio Is

car radio listening
AM/FM, XM, HD, whatever. The numbers show that most people care more about just listening to music than about alphabet soup.

Sandro Di Carlo Darsa / Getty Images

A lot of people don't know what HD radio or confuse it with satellite radio. Others just aren’t interested due to the wide availability of internet radio, streaming music, and podcasts.

During the initial HD Radio push, interest never rose above 8 percent, according to a 2010 survey. That’s pretty dismal when you consider the fact that the radio industry itself experienced moderate growth toward the end of that period.

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Nobody Asked for HD Radio

who asked for this anyway?
The biggest question about HD radio is who asked for it in the first place?.

John Fedele / Getty Images

The cold, hard truth may be that HD Radio is a format in search of an audience that never asked for it in the first place.

With HD Radio's FCC approval in 2002, it seemed like all of iBiquity’s cards were in place to capitalize on a new market. But the rise of streaming media, internet radio, podcasts, and other media sources have proved serious competitors.

HD radio is an interesting technology that may be worth checking out if you're a radio loyalist. If you're not, then there are plenty of competing in-car entertainment options that are more worth your time.

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