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News Archive: April 2012

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4/26/12 - Details Emerge of ZoneCast Pitch to FCC [link to this story]

This week a D.C. communications law firm working with Geo Broadcast Solutions (GBS) unveiled the company's Petition for Rulemaking at the FCC, which proposes to allow FM radio stations to use multiple booster transmitters for the provision of "targeted" programming.

The proposal stands to dramatically reconfigure the nature of an FM broadcast station: instead of one large transmitter covering a single area, GBS' ZoneCast technology would allow stations to deploy as many as seven booster stations on their parent frequency, with each booster targeting a specific region of a station's primary coverage area.

GBS' 259-page filing (most of which is testing data, and some of which is duplicative) urges acceptance by the FCC because it would "be consistent with and further effectuate the Commission's longstanding goal of promoting localism. It would also improve the viability of a financially challenged radio industry and would benefit the U.S. economy as a whole."

ZoneCasting is a proprietary technology, and GBS has patents pending on the control mechanisms that allow for the synchronization of multiple boosters in a station's constellation. There is resultingly no detailed explanation of how the technology actually works in the petition, other than that it interfaces nicely with automation systems and wireless Ethernet or WiMAX links are used to feed specialized programming to each booster.

Interestingly, ZoneCasting seems to be designed to primarily allow the simultaneous broadcast of "different audio messages," such as commercials or public service announcements, across a station's chain of boosters. The proposal spends a lot of time explaining how such targeted programming could be a boon for advertisers and political candidates, as they could conceivably buy localized spot-coverage at a fraction of the price of traditional broadcast adverts, thereby providing more bang for their buck - as well as multiplying the spot-related revenue streams of stations nationwide.

The petition does invoke the possibility of stations providing hyper-localized news, multi-lingual programming, or even the broadcast of customized religious programming "to be received by different denominations." However, I find it highly unlikely that broadcasters would increase their investments in program creation, which have been pared to the bone over the last 15 years. GBS, too, seems to want to discourage such practices, proposing a limitation on localized long-form programming to three hours per day or less.

One station in Utah tested the technology in 2010, and another station in Florida tried it in 2011. Both tests utilized three booster-stations. GBS reported that ZoneCast allowed both stations to successfully send unique "audio messages" through their network of boosters without causing more than "minimal" interference to other boosters or the primary stations.

There are, however, some big unanswered questions about the ZoneCast technology. Most notably, how much would it cost an average station to construct its own network of boosters, not to mention pay for the proprietary system? If multiple stations in a single market adopted it, what kind of engineering and regulatory intricacy would be required to build out booster networks that minimize the potential for interference? It is one thing to responsibly site a single transmitter, but quite another to site up to seven operating on the same frequency.

Furthermore, how compatible is the technology with HD Radio? This is an intriguing question because the proprietors of digital broadcasting are deep in their own negotiations with the FCC to allow the placement of separate, digital-only booster stations to improve the coverage area and robustness of HD signals. If an FM-HD station wanted to use both HD Radio and ZoneCast, would they need to build two separate booster networks - one for analog programming and one for digital?

The FCC is accepting comment on the GBS petition through May 23. The company's D.C. advocates expect the discussion to focus more on the engineering principles of the technology than its transformational potential for FM broadcasting more generally; the latter will come if the FCC moves ahead with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the issue.

4/19/12 - HD Radio at NAB '12: Stayin' Alive [link to this story]

HD Radio proprietor iBiquity Digital Corporation made three announcements at the NAB annual convention, which winds down today.

iBiquity, Emmis Communications (an Indianapolis-based broadcast conglomerate) and Intel unveiled a prototype smartphone with FM-HD reception technology. The FM-HD phone chip also includes a feature developed by Emmis called TagStation which will allow FM-HD stations to broadcast targeted advertisements to listeners on cell phones within a station's coverage area.

Called "a landmark" in the digital radio transition by Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan, the companies will now attempt to woo phone-makers to include an HD chip in their devices and telecom companies to support the effort.

In addition, General Motors announced a commitment to enable HD Radio's "Artist Experience" (i.e., radio with pictures) feature in three of its crossover sport utility vehicles, and iBiquity celebrated the formal launch of HD Radio in Mexico, for which it's prepared a pared-back Spanish-language version of its site.

Relative to iBiquity's anemic presence at NAB shows in recent years, this represents a veritable slew of "news" about the technology's adoptive "progress." However, reading between the lines diminishes the impressiveness of these developments.

With regard to HD in smartphones, broadcasters have been lobbying the electronics industry for several years now to enable analog FM reception in phones (many already have the hardware onboard, but not the software to use it.) The announcement of the FM-HD chip did not include information on how much it would cost device-makers to install.

Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel noted that the country's largest broadcasters have not publicly lined up to support the smartphone effort, even though Radio World reported that Emmis' Smulyan believes it represents "both the radio industry and NAB’s number one priority right now."

This will take some fancy footwork, as broadcasters' ham-handed attempt to have Congress mandate radios in phones in 2010 failed miserably and raised the ire of consumer electronics manufacturers.

Getting HD Radio into smartphones would allow an end-run around the slow uptake of the technology by auto manufacturers. The growing practice of tethering phones to the dashboard would de-emphasize the importance of having HD built into the car.

Today, nearly all automakers have committed to including HD Radio in at least one make or model, but very few have committed to making it standard equipment across their entire brand. GM's adoption of Artist Experience in three discrete SUVs is not necessarily indicative of enthusiastic support for the technology. The appeal of the feature, especially in a mobile environment, also remains to be proven.

You would think that all of this would be good for sales of HD-compatible radios. At the GM event, iBiquity claimed that seven million HD receivers have been sold since the technology's launch in 2002. That's up from five million sales reported last fall, but still represents a national receiver penetration rate of just 1% (among an installed receiver base of ~700 million).

iBiquity CEO Bob Struble claims that an HD-equipped vehicle is sold every 15 seconds in the United States; on further inspection, this sounds more impressive than it is. Last month, 1.4 million vehicles were sold in the United States, which works out to about 31 vehicles sold per minute. At 15 seconds per sale, just 13% of the vehicles bought last month were HD-ready.

Finally, Mexico's embrace of the technology isn't new news. The country's allowed broadcasters within a buffer zone near the United States to broadcast in HD for several years now (these stations primarily target a U.S. audience). The fact that three FM broadcasters in Mexico City now transmit in HD is hardly indicative of future widespread adoption by the country's radio industry.

However, it is interesting that the diversity of available HD receivers in Mexico seems to grossly outnumber those available in the U.S. Since iBiquity's broadcaster licensing scheme does not apply internationally, it must make up the revenue elsewhere, so a diverse receiver market is key in this context.

None of these developments are game-changing; they all represent HD Radio's incremental movement in several spheres. The big question remains just what constitutes "critical mass" for the technology's long-term viability - and whether that can be achieved in this decade.

4/12/12 - ZoneCasting's New Twist on FM Broadcasting [link to this story]

It's not just the AM dial that's being considered for reconfiguration.

A company called GEO Broadcast Solutions has developed a technology called "ZoneCasting," which effectively allows FM radio stations to split up their coverage areas into unique regions featuring hyper-local content and advertising.

ZoneCasting reportedly works by melding wireless broadband connectivity with GPS location technology and FM booster stations (exactly how isn't clear). According to the company, an FM station can theoretically split its coverage area into as many as seven zones, each of which would feature programming targeted to that zone. GEO Broadcast Solutions also claims that as listeners move from one zone to another, the programming they hear will transition seamlessly.

ZoneCasting has already been tested in Florida and Utah, to much success - so much so that GEO Broadcast Solutions plans to petition the FCC for permission to allow FM booster stations to originate programming. (There is no such petition yet in the agency's Electronic Comment Filing System.)

FM boosters are much like translators, in that they are both intended to relay programming from a parent station. Boosters are typically employed to fill in gaps in a station's coverage area. But as we have seen over the last decade, the role of translator stations has slowly morphed from providing a secondary service to becoming primary broadcast outlets of their own. Thus it is not surprising that some folks are considering the same trajectory for booster stations.

There's too many unknowns about ZoneCasting technology (not to mention the company developing it) to make any declarative statements about its inherent functionality or the challenges of implementation. However, broadcasting is called broadcasting for a reason - and this idea stands to turn that notion somewhat on its head. Instead of an FM station having one transmitter, ZoneCast seems to work by allowing a station to operate as many as seven transmitters, all on a single frequency, to provide location-specific coverage.

It's becoming increasingly obvious that broadcasters are looking to new models for using radio spectrum. In doing so, they stand to fundamentally change the nature of the medium itself. That this is happening with no participation from the listening public suggests these changes may not be net positives.

4/5/12 - NAB Plots Future of AM Broadcasting [link to this story]

Radio World recently published a long Q&A-style feature with Caroline Beasley, Executive Vice President of the Beasley Broadcast Group. A family affair, Beasley owns more than 40 stations in 11 markets around the country.

Among the many topics covered in the conversation, Beasley revealed that the National Association of Broadcasters has been quietly working on an engineering study that "outlines a number of different options regarding the future of the AM band."

We have formed an AM Task Force that will be reviewing this study, along with the Radio Technology Committee. That committee is made up of engineers from the various groups around the country. So the AM Task Force, along with the Radio Technology Committee, will review the study and then report back...with the options that they feel that we should go with regard[ing] AM.

No mentions of an "AM Task Force" or "Radio Technology Committee" are found on the NAB website. So just what sort of "options" are the trade group considering for the future of AM broadcasting? "It's a confidential study," Beasley replied. "We know that there’s concern about the viability and the future of AM so we want to be proactive here."

It is not too difficult to read between the lines. AM broadcasting has been in a state of deterioration for the last two decades. The proliferation of electronic devices that produce interference to AM broadcast signals, coupled with a decline in the number of broadcast engineers employed to properly maintain them, has placed many smaller AM broadcasters into a category euphemistically referred to in station clusters as "loss leaders."

A good place to start any speculation might be the Broadcast Maximization Committee. Founded in 2008, the BMC is "a group of consulting engineers and broadcast industry representatives" which initially formed to address an FCC proposal to repurpose "vacant spectrum left over after the DTV transition."

The BMC's main proposal would do away with the AM band entirely, migrating existing broadcasters to what used to be TV Channels 5 and 6 (76-88 MHz, which is directly adjacent to the bottom end of the current FM dial). The Committee also suggests moving the entire LPFM service into this spectrum. For the last three years, the BMC's been quietly advocating for its proposal at the FCC.

It is a radical idea, but certainly not impossible: other countries, such as Japan, already include this spectrum in their FM dial, and Mexico is currently in the process of migrating its AM broadcasters to FM. Furthermore, the BMC concept already has traction in Policyville: in 2009, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and National Public Radio strongly endorsed the concept.

Another (much less likely) "option" for the AM band might be digital conversion. AM broadcasters have had significant difficulties with the implementation of HD Radio technology. The hybrid analog/digital system causes widespread interference to neighboring stations; HD signals are notoriously sensitive to natural noise found in the AM band; and the audio and datacasting quality of HD is negligible. These problems are behind the gradual abandonment of the protocol as currently implemented.

The desired end-state of HD Radio is an all-digital service. Many broadcasters (including some that own the most powerful AM stations in the country) seem to have already written off the future viability of the band, and might be willing to gamble on such a transition. However, such a move would require significant capital investments by broadcasters (that they can't afford to make presently), and the FCC's already elected not to force adoption of HD Radio given its proprietary nature.

This is often how major communications policies are made: powerful incumbents plan their course of action in secret, then blitz regulators with tons of information that frames their desires in the most palatable light. But when the future of an entire broadcast service may be up for grabs, such deliberations deserve the light of day - not to mention wider participation by all affected constituencies, most notably the public, to whom the airwaves ostensibly belong.

The NAB's acknowledged that its studies project only five to ten years ahead, so the "future of AM' may be closer than we realize.