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MP3PRO to put the stereo stream in radio

Thomson Multimedia, creator of the MP3 format that is at the core of Napster file sharing and delivery of audio files to computers, will unveil MP3PRO, the next step in its popular MP3 audio-streaming technology.

The new format was first seen at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, but, according to Thomson, the new version will allow for more compression at comparable sound quality than was heard and seen in that PRO prototype.

While the new format is good news for radio broadcasters, the catch is that it comes at a time when major radio groups are ordering their stations to stop Web streaming their on-air programs on the Internet because of legal issues.

Henri Linde, vice president for new business in the patent/licensing office of Thomson multimedia, says MP3PRO has two key advantages over regular MP3, whose basic technology has become a de facto standard for Web-generated audio streaming.

"While the initial edition of MP3PRO—announced in early 2001—allowed 128 kb/s performance at a 64 kb/s encoding rate, the latest version to be displayed at NAB 2001 will reduce compression rates down to 40 kb/s," says Linde. "That rate enables stereo audio streaming for radio broadcasters."

Encoding rates for mono on-air streaming will now reach down to 20 kb/s. MP3 music files, says Linde, currently are played on an estimated 160 million computers worldwide and on more than 10 million stand-alone MP3 player devices.

Thomson's Swedish partner, Coding Technologies, had been researching a hearing device for the deaf when it helped develop the MP3PRO technology.

At NAB 2001, Thomson multimedia plans to announce that the companies have issued their 100th license to a roster of companies including Apple, Adobe, RealNetworks, Samsung, Sanyo, MusicMatch and Texas Instruments. Linde says MP3PRO is not likely to replace MP3 in the near future: PRO is backward-compatible and will work with the millions of older MP3 files in existence.

Yet, as Linde acknowledges, most radio stations have not yet found a business plan that affords healthy profits from audio streaming. In the past year, major broadcast companies have sharply curtailed, or eliminated, their Web presence due primarily to a plunge in dotcom advertiser spending.

In mid-April, Clear Channel ordered more than 1,200 stations to cease Web streaming, at least temporarily. Other major groups were expected to take similar steps, in response to radio advertisers that have balked at paying union actors higher fees for radio commercials streamed on the Internet.

Still another pending issue is a recent opinion by the U.S. Copyright Office that would subject stations to new performance royalty fees for streaming their on-air audio on the Internet. NAB has taken the issue to court.

Is Linde concerned? "Yes. But we believe in the end, music-content providers will come to the realization that, like air play, streaming audio will promote the sales of CDs and other products, not hinder it."