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News Archive: April 2007

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4/24/07 - "Free" Radio Not So Much in HD [link to this story]

Fresh off the heels of the FCC's veritable rubber-stamping of the "HD" digital radio protocol, the broadcasters behind iBiquity's technology are wasting no time in preparing to lock down its content. Think about this the next time an NAB executive testifies on Capitol Hill and proclaims the virtue of so-called "free" over-the-air radio.

NDS, a maker of digital media encryption technology, recently signed a deal with iBiquity to provide HD Radio with an encrypted content-delivery system that effectively institutes subscriptions capability on digital radio.

"RadioGuard" is derived from NDS' "VideoGuard" technology, which it claims will allow radio stations to provide "more choices to their listeners, a broader selection of content and more segmentation opportunities for advertisers, all of which provide additional revenue-generating possibilities."

"Consumers," says NDS, "will be able to take advantage of services not currently offered in today’s terrestrial or satellite radio environments. These services include pay-per-listen options for live concerts and events, improved radio reading services for the blind, private channels for emergency operators, and opt-in events sponsored by advertisers." It should be noted that some of these, such as radio reading services for the blind, are already offered for free, provided the listener purchases a special receiver designed to separate unencrypted subcarrier signals from analog FM broadcasts.

Given that there's such extremely limited bandwidth available in the HD Radio environment - about 140 kilohertz in the FM "extended hybrid" analog/digital configuration - it's difficult to see how stations would continue to multicast multiple free streams of program content while also offering up something for those willing to pay for it. Something will have to give; data compression solutions only go so far.

Of course, terrestrial radio needs to come up with program content that's worth paying for. But that's beside the point. Up until now, all AM and FM radio was free - you just paid for the cost of the receiver, though digital ones still cost in the three-figure range, and those currently being sold will not be compatible with NDS' "conditional access" technology.

Now, perhaps, we will witness the beginning of the fencing-off what used to be fully public spectrum, for purposes that only serve a public willing to pay. Terrestrial radio's never been set up like that. The same thing has already happened with DTV, though, so I guess its coming should be no real surprise.

Although the FCC has not formally ruled on exactly how digital broadcasters may split their spectrum up into free and pay-for-play services, this deal is obviously a move by iBiquity to implement the capability in order to set the ground work for official endorsement. After all, that is essentially how HD Radio itself was developed and deployed.

However, unlike DTV, the proprietary nature of the fundamental HD broadcast standard has knock-on effects with regard to the features the standard will allow. iBiquity is thus in a position to define the range of add-on features available in the digital environment, like "conditional access" services. In this case, if you want to offer subscription-only content on terrestrial radio, you'll have to go through RadioGuard - no alternate protocols allowed.

In this light, this latest development shouldn't be heralded as a great leap forward for digital broadcast technology, but as another step in the direction of conditioning the public to pay for a medium that has historically been free.

4/19/07 - Kevin Martin, Unfunnyman [link to this story]

Sometimes politicians couch the truth in humor. This typically happens when they converge for one of their pat-on-the-back dinners, where they're surrounded by like-minded friends. Events like the White House Correspondents' Association dinner come to mind.

In the world of communications policymaking, the hubris-fest happens during the annual dinner of the Federal Communications Bar Association - the cadre of specialized lawyers who grease the Federal Communications Commission's wheels to keep their clients happy. Headlining this year's dinner was FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who, by all reports, was quite a crowd-pleaser.

Check some of his jokes, as reported by Broadcasting & Cable:

Martin said his son Luke had been very excited about getting the chance to play with [FCC Commissioner Robert] McDowell's son, Griffin, Martin added that Griffin was "a little demanding. At first it was unclear whether he wanted to play or not. Some people thought he would. Some People thought he wouldn't. Finally, he said he would only play if we bought him a suit of armor [yet another reference to McDowell's recusal from the AT&T/Bell South vote]."

Martin chided [Commissioner Jonathan] Adelstein for his "side deal" with radio stations in a payola settlement. The stations agreed to set aside 4,200 hours of airtime for independent artists. "Ten percent of that set-aside must be used to play the music of a certain harmonica player," said Martin, flashing a picture of Adelstein, who plays the instrument.

Calling him "the professor of our group" and "Dr. Copps," Martin said Commissioner Michael Copps had done an "extraordinary job of rallying his troops on the media ownership review," flashing a picture of Copps as Elvis for his appearance at a Nashville public hearing on media ownership, then as The Pope addressing "the faithful in Columbus," the site of a town meeting on ownership.

Then came the kicker: "Can you imagine the crowd he'd get if the FCC were actually going to do anything on media ownership."

But wait, there's more:

Saying that some people had complained the FCC took way to long to OK the AT&T/Bell South merger, Martin quipped: "I say if we hadn't broken them up in the first place this wouldn't be an issue."

Martin said that Commissioners Copps and Jonathan Adelstein's traveling around the country arguing that the U.S. was not a broadband leader was "crazy." He said the U.S. has dozens of broad bands, the Go-Gos, the Bangles, the Dixie Chicks (groans all around).

Much of this might actually be funny, if it didn't reflect actual policy operations at the FCC.

4/12/07 - Cell Phones to Stay Off In Air [link to this story]

A whiff of common sense breaks out at the Federal Communications Commission: it has terminated a proceeding that looked into whether or not people should be allowed to use their cell phones on airplanes.

According to regulators, there is "insufficient technical information" to determine whether or not the use of cell phones in the air would interfere with aircraft systems, though the FCC seems more concerned about the potential for interference to cell networks themselves, as phones transition from cell to cell at 400+ miles per hour, while 30,000+ feet off the ground. It's not something the cell system is really set up to do.

Interestingly, a large amount of the public record of the now-concluded proceeding came from people who abhorred the thought of listening to people yakking at the top of their lungs for hours on end while trapped in a hurtling steel tube with them. The notion of allowing some semblance of wi-fi Internet access on planes, however, appears to still be under consideration, though the interference issue on that front is also unresolved.

4/7/07 - Full-Power FM Filing Window to Open in October [link to this story]

The FCC will accept applications for non-commercial, full-power FM stations from October 12-19 of this year. That's a filing window two days longer than the usual, and the heads-up announcement is 4-5 months earlier than standard.

The Prometheus Radio Project calls this "your best, and possibly last, opportunity to bring full power community radio to your town." All applications must be filed electronically. Check to do a quick search and see if the possibility exists where you live.

4/4/07 - FCC: Market to Decide Fate of HD Radio [link to this story]

On March 22, the Federal Communications Commission removed the final administrative hurdles to allowing the full-scale rollout of in-band, on-channel (IBOC) "HD" digital radio in the United States. It's a huge win for the industry, though the public benefits remain to be seen.

According to staff testimony at the meeting (which starts at ~1:01:00), the FCC appears unconcerned with HD Radio's potential pitfalls and more than willing to let the industry set the pace of radio's analog/digital transition. According to Ann Gallagher, an engineer in the Audio Division of the FCC's Media Bureau, "substantial additional testing" by iBiquity and the National Association of Broadcasters justifies the expedited deployment of HD Radio. Stations may now commence multicasting and separate their analog and digital antenna systems without formal FCC approval.

On the FM side, the "extended hybrid" mode of digital/analog broadcasting has been authorized, which will further fatten each FM signal on the dial, possibly to the detriment of lower-powered neighbor-stations. FM translator and booster stations, as well as LPFM stations, may also now adopt HD Radio technology "where such operation is technically possible." This may be a kicker especially for LPFM stations, since HD Radio essentially doubles a station's spectral footprint, which may put an LFPM station's digital sidebands within the "no-go zone" of third-adjacent channel restrictions.

AM stations are now free to broadcast in HD 24/7, though there is nothing in the technical record that suggests iBiquity has done anything substantive to improve or mitigate interference problems caused by HD skywave signals.

Brendan Murray, an attorney in the Media Bureau's Policy Division, told the Commissioners that they're deferring approval of an actual HD Radio standard as developed by the National Radio Systems Committee, essentially adopting the technology "as is" with no restrictions on its subsequent modification by industry. Stations are free to use their excess digital bandwidth as they see fit - this means for purposes other than actual radio broadcasting - though for the present time stations are required to simulcast their analog signal as their primary digital content.

The Commission has also deferred placing any public-interest requirements on what broadcasters should use their extra digital bandwidth for, and declined to adopt content-encryption mechanisms (aka the "broadcast flag") for digital radio streams. Most importantly, the FCC will not set a mandatory changeover date for radio, meaning analog signals will continue to exist into the foreseeable future; the FCC's endorsement of HD Radio, at this point, does not include the as-yet untested all-digital broadcast mode.

Murray also noted that international negotiations are also underway to resolve "possible disputes" involving the implementation of HD Radio domestically - though the FCC has already sanctioned its deployment. These "negotiations" most certainly involve Canadian authorities, who see the implementation of HD Radio's technological capability beyond audio content provision as a possible violation of treaties that define just what the broadcast radio bands can be used for.

Finally, all petitions for reconsideration filed in the digital radio proceeding asking the FCC to consider alternatives to the HD Radio standard have been dismissed en masse, no reason given.

As for the actual vote, Democrat Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein both went along reluctantly, concurring and dissenting in part with the order itself.

Said Copps: "By adopting a blanket authorization for digital radio, this decision confers a free pass on others to take their spectrum, bypass local communities and run more of the canned and nationalized programming that is all too common on our consolidated analog system today and which is, truth be told, responsible for many of broadcast radio’s current problems."

But the devil's in the details, and those we do not know: the full text of the agency's decision has not yet been made public. Has the FCC exclusively endorsed HD Radio as the only standard that can be utilized by U.S. broadcasters? Does the agency have a timeline for resolving the large issues it has deferred deciding on now? What about HD Radio's wholly proprietary nature: will the FCC force iBiquity to open the standard to competitive improvement?

Other coverage of the FCC's decision notes that iBiquity, the proprietor of HD Radio, reacted in a manner like they "exhal[ed] a sigh that's been held in for several years." Though it appears that the FCC has stopped short of a full-on, enthusiastic endorsement of the technology, it has removed all marketplace barriers to its proliferation.

I don't believe this is because the FCC thinks it's the best DAB technology available, but it is the horse that the broadcast industry has its money on. We'll now see whether that bet is a good investment or not, and we'll be forced to learn the hard way whether the technology's shortfalls are as egregious as feared. Marketplace forces are not inexorable, and radio's digital transition will most likely take a decade or more to really take hold.