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News Archive: January 2010

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1/31/10 - Bring The Noise Redux: FCC Okays FM-HD Power Increase [link to this story]

With little fanfare on Friday, the FCC approved a blanket four-fold increase in the power of FM-HD digital sidebands, and also established procedures for stations to apply for a power-hike of up to 10x.

This outcome was no surprise. For the last two years the proprietors of HD Radio, iBiquity Digital Corporation, and National Public Radio have been wrangling over just how much of a digital FM power boost is needed to replicate existing FM stations' analog coverage.

The problem is, even with all of the claims of HD's proponents (on the record, no less) that a fractional-powered FM digital signal can provide the equivalent coverage area of a full-power analog signal, reality has proven disturbingly different. Not only are FM-HD signals difficult to acquire and lock onto on a mobile platform for the long haul, but the signals fail miserably at penetrating buildings.

The FCC and HD Radio's proprietors believe this is the primary reason why the adoption of FM-HD broadcasting "has dropped significantly over the last two years."

The FCC's latest digital radio Order is notable for four whoppers. The first is that, as predicted, NPR's technical analysis was used as a foil to both approve the power hike and pooh-pooh any concerns of increased interference from the increase in digital FM power. It provided neutral political cover for a questionable technical decision.

The second was the optimistically-projected lack of expected interference from the move: "Based on our analysis, as well as five years of interference-free FM hybrid digital operations by approximately 1500 stations," the FCC blesses the FM-HD power hike.

The record does not reflect this conclusion. Not only has the FCC received several complaints from listeners in its ongoing digital radio proceeding about interference between digital FM sidebands and nearby analog signals, but the potential amount of interference between the "host" analog signal of an FM-HD station and its digital sidebands is likely to increase because of this Order. This was noted more than a year earlier - by one of the architects of NPR's preliminary power/interference studies, no less.

The third whopper is the FCC's callousness toward what higher-power FM-HD sidebands will do to the reception of nearby LPFM stations. Public-interest lobbyists pressed the FCC just earlier this month to take an incremental approach to any FM-HD power increase, noting the FCC's promises to look into an expansion of LPFM service.

The rub is that, under the FCC's latest decision, any full-power radio station may conduct FM-HD broadcasts at digital power levels well in excess of what any LPFM station is allowed to broadcast with in analog alone. In a nutshell, the increased power of FM digital sidebands constitute a clear and present danger of interference to the reception of LPFM stations. The FCC blew that off: "As a general matter, adoption of these recommendations would constitute a dramatic change in LPFM licensing rules and the relationship between LPFM and full-service stations. Analog LPFM and FM translator stations are secondary services, and, as such, are not currently entitled to protection from existing full-service analog FM stations."

Thus, any potential material growth of LPFM is now directly dependent on just how much the interference noise-floor on the FM dial increases because of the proliferation of higher-power digital sidebands. The answer to this quandary will only become known with time.

Finally, with regard to any increase in digital interference, the FCC's Order recommends that the conflicting stations first try to rectify the matter between themselves. If this is not possible, the FCC may be called upon to mediate interference concerns, but only if the aggrieved station applies for relief, and only if the complaint contains

at least six reports of ongoing (rather than transitory) objectionable interference. For each report of interference, the affected FM licensee must submit a map showing the location of the reported interference and a detailed description of the nature and extent of the interference being experienced at that location....The complaint must also contain a complete description of the tests and equipment used to identify the alleged interference and the scope of the unsuccessful efforts to resolve the interference.

If the interference-appeal meets this onerous criteria, the Media Bureau promises to act upon it within 90 days.

Speaking of dramatic changes, this aspect of the digital radio rulemaking puts the burden of proof of harm on the station(s) receiving interference, not the station(s) causing it. FCC spectrum-management rules, with the exception of secondary services (like LPFM) are generally written in such a way that a new service will, by design, work to minimize its impact to nearby spectrum-neighbors. This new FM-HD interference rule not only flips that paradigm, but encourages interference by discouraging stations to report it.

Still and all, this is not likely to jumpstart a second wave of FM-HD station implementations; it's questionable just how many stations will invest in a digital power increase anyway, given that it involves some rather substantial reinvestment in a station's transmission plant.

The fault of FM-HD radio is not in a single technical tweak; it's in the design of HD Radio itself, which overpromises and underdelivers to the detriment of existing analog services. The fact that the FCC is so willing to sacrifice the integrity of analog radio for a crippled digital replacement is deeply disturbing.

1/24/10 - Whoa, Canada: DAB Effectively Dead? [link to this story]

Grant Goddard notes the publication of a report by Industry Canada (our northern neighbors' version of the FCC) on the state of the country's digital audio broadcasting transition. Short answer: do-over time!

In the report, the Canadian government basically admits that its DAB transition has stalled (at just 76 stations), and is now in reverse (digital stations are going dark). The report cites many reasons for its failure: large up-front capital investment; expensive receivers leading to little audience; and, most importantly, DAB was designed as a technical solution to a content problem.

Most notably, the report observes that DAB now is, by policy, "no longer a replacement for analogue AM and FM services." Industry Canada is now investigating ways to repurpose the spectrum it originally allocated for its Eureka-147 model of DAB, and is actively exploring other protocols.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that Industry Canada is apparently considering the implementation of HD Radio onto its AM and FM bands, noting its proximity and marketplace-thrall to the United States. Not the smartest idea: not only has the proliferation of domestic HD-enabled stations stalled, but any momentum this particular protocol has is iffy at best.

This is quite a turn of events, given that more than two years ago the Canadian government complained to the FCC that the imposition of HD Radio might be a violation of international spectrum-allocation treaties.

1/16/10 - Data Privacy Long Gone At U.S. Borders [link to this story]

Remember the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)? It's not in effect yet, though some 40 countries are secretly negotiating the final details before its endorsement and implementation.

One of the most controversial elements of ACTA would be participating countries' ability to arbitrarily inspect and, if they deem it necessary, impound electronic devices (cell phones, PDAs, laptops, etc.) at the border of entry. Ostensibly justified to combat terrorism, ACTA's main function is to turn the hunt for copyright infringement into a new police duty.

It appears that the United States is getting ahead of itself on the ACTA front: the American Civial Liberties Union reports that just between October 2008 and June 2009, agents of the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection wing searched "more than 1,500 computers, cell phones and other electronic devices belonging to international travelers as they entered U.S. airports or other border posts."

Customs and Border Protection implemented the policy in July of 2008. In nearly 300 cases, federal agents copied at least some of the data from the travelers.

The ACLU is correct to complain about this apparent violation of Constitutional rights, but that issue's apparently already been decided, and one wonders if this is instead a dry run or prepatory policy for the full implementation of ACTA.

1/10/10 - War on Pirates in 2009: (Paper) Fur Flies Furiously [link to this story]

For the ninth year in a row, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau has broken its record for the number of enforcement actions taken against unlicensed broadcasters in any given calendar year. 429 enforcement actions spanning 22 states have been catalogued; there are likely to be some stragglers into the database but 2009 goes into the books as the year of the one-armed paper-hanger.

The numbers themselves are relatively unsurprising. Enforcement actions in 2009 were more geographically-concentrated (Florida, New York and New Jersey accounted for nearly 63% of all enforcement actions), but unlicensed broadcast activity was reported coast-to-coast.

However, the number of actual, painful punishments have dropped: five Forfeiture Orders (compared to 13 in 2008); 6 Notices of Apparent Liability (versus 13 in 2008); raid-arrests and seizures remain constant from year-to-year (5/3 in '09, 5/2 in '08 - and at least one of the "seizures" last year was voluntary).

State laws in Florida and New Jersey "banning" pirate radio are effectively toothless, even though the longest-lived of the bunch has been on the books for more than four years now. Neither have resulted in any significant impact on unlicensed broadcasting in those states. In fact, the number of FCC enforcement actions in New Jersey nearly doubled last year, compared to the year before.

Thus, you've still got a better than 8-in-10 chance of committing electronic civil disobedience and getting away with it with nothing more than a wag of the finger, via certified mail. The FCC did begin the new year with a bang, so to speak, fining a couple in Texas $10,000 for a case that dragged through 2009. It'll make for good number-stuffing at the end of 2010.

In related news, somebody at the Commission got around to taking Lawrence Lessig's suggestion to "reboot the FCC" somewhat seriously; who knows what implications this will have on the FCC-spelunkers among us.

1/4/10 - Adios, (Radio) Mediageek [link to this story]

I spent my New Year's eve in somewhat bittersweet celebration with my compadre Paul Riismandel, otherwise well-known as the Mediageek. After seven and a half years of doing his Mediageek radioshow, which had been syndicated on more than a dozen stations in North America, Paul's decided to hang up the mic.

Having done both the daily and weekly radio grind myself, I know how it can eat at you after a while; and when you're heart's not in it anymore, it's time to move forward to something else. It's how I ended up in graduate school. At least for me, my "radio kids" are still alive and growing with new parentage, but in the case of the Mediageek radioshow, it's truly the end of an era.

Paul and I met and became friends primarily because of our mutual love of radio, and the magic of radio production has always been a touchstone. We've traveled the country just to transmit. Although he's still the adviser to Northwestern University's radio station, WNUR, it's not quite the same as getting behind a board once a week and letting rip. He's also not the first of my radio buddies to step away from the transmitter this year.

However, in a ritual very appropriate for the moment, we had to fire up WNUR's airchain to make the last show go, and returned the frequency to static once it was over. I don't think it was ever really possible to do justice to what the Mediageek radioshow has accomplished in a single episode, but we did our best (Paul sez the extended version of the last program will be posted later).

It's not like the Mediageek's dead, either: he's hoping to devote more time to both of his blogs, his paid-writing column gig, and a book project, among many other things.

Though my CV will suffer, I do have a doctoral degree to finish this year, and then perhaps I can publish as much as Paul does. The radioshow archives will remain online as an historical witness to an interesting period of time in the flux of media democracy in America, and thus will remain forever useful. Although the act of ending the show was sad, I've never been prouder to call the Mediageek my friend.