Google Play goes down the tubes

Google Play works with very poor network connections. Does your station?

By James Cridland
Posted 15 September 2014, 11.00am edt

I listen to music using Google Play Music All Access, Google's Spotify clone (on Android, though it's available on iOS as well). Hitting "I'm Feeling Lucky Radio" gives me a stream of music that Google thinks I might quite like, and when I get bored of that (I regularly do) I can dial up almost every conceivable album ever made - whether in the Google Play Music All Access catalogue or uploaded to the service by me. I got it in its £7.99/month initial offer, and while it isn't as social as Rdio or Spotify, it does pretty well for me. It's the availability of these services, and the ever-better algorithms, that lead me to consider that non-stop music radio's long-term future is not a rosy one.

A fair bit of my listening is done in the tube, on the 30-minute journey into town or the 90-minute journey through town and down to Heathrow airport. Unlike other subway systems, there is no cellular coverage down here, but London Underground has added WiFi hotspots at every underground station, and if you are a contract customer of selected mobile phone networks, they give you free access to this wifi as a sweetener.

Typically, a journey will therefore be a 20-second burst of WiFi in a station, followed by a two minute journey in a tunnel, followed by another 20-second gasp of WiFi at the next station.

Naturally, there is no opportunity to stream live radio with this kind of connection. But how does Google Play Music's faux-radio jukebox cope?

Perfectly, it turns out.

I'm guessing there's a little bit of clever caching going on in the app, which downloads enough music during those short periods of connection to keep it going. And it does, without any interruption, during the entire length of the Piccadilly line.

Suspicious that it was using music it's already downloaded for me - when charging and connected to WiFi, it does download some songs just in case - I tried dialling up an album I'd never heard before, and it played it flawlessly during a 40-minute spell underground.

Live radio has no opportunities down here. But if you have a good and clever caching system, as Google Play Music All Access does, and NPR One ought to, then you can overcome even the hardest data connections.

Radio broadcasters put their faith in "live" - but I am not convinced that "live" matters. Instead, I think it's more a case of "in the moment" - which, while reflecting what's going on today in the world, doesn't need to be live. More important is that that great content is available to listeners however and wherever they want to consume it.

If all you're putting in your apps is a live stream: perhaps it's time to think again. I suspect there are many who'd like to listen where reliable cellular coverage isn't available.

James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.

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