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News Archive: October 2009

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10/25/09 - Pubcasters to be Determinant Factor in FM-HD Power Inrease [link to this story]

I smell history repeating itself.

Not 10 years ago, National Public Radio acted as an important ally - and a foil - for a concerted attempt by commercial broadcasters to quash LPFM stations before birth. A lot's changed since then (for example, NPR only halfheartedly opposes LPFM expansion now), but there's still a ways to go before that service reaches its full potential.

The historical lesson learned is: if it weren't for NPR's anti-LPFM stance at the time, which provided the anti-LPFM campaign with a semblance of technical "impartiality" and brought important "liberal" cachet to the legislative fight, LPFM would be an even stronger service today.

NPR plays the same role in the evolution of U.S. digital radio. While the regulatory record does show that NPR has never been completely comfortable with HD Radio as the U.S. digital technology-of-choice, it has yet played a significant role in the HD innovation space. In some respects, since 1999 - when the FCC first began deliberation of U.S. radio's digital future - NPR has moved from a position of skepticism and suspicion about the HD Radio protocol to one of reluctant acceptance and support.

Due to decisions made years ago - the most important that it was not politically feasible to stand up against iBiquity's HD-adoption steamroller - NPR has become an HD broadcast constituency with policy-attributes similar to the ones it enjoyed during initial LPFM rulemaking.

HD Radio's proprietor, the iBiquity Corporation, has asked the FCC to allow FM-HD sidebands to be increased by ten times their currently-allowed level. Although the record is clear that, since the hybrid (analog/digital) HD Radio signal uses more spectrum than its analog equivalent, simply deploying HD Radio causes interference by design.

iBiquity is claiming the power increase is necessary to survive "listenability" problems with current HD broadcasts. Critics of the proposal contend that such a move will exacerbate the growing problem of HD-initiated interference.

Enter NPR. For the last six months, it has been conducting an exhaustive study of iBiquity's power-hike proposal. While the results are not yet formally known, speculation has been rife in the trade press that NPR would not support the maximum increase requested by iBiquity; instead, it would seek to find a "compromise" position that would balance the loss of listeners due to increased FM-HD interference with the benefits of a more robust digital signal.

A leaked memorandum from NPR Labs provides public radio's stance on the issue. This exparte filing made on October 7th by NPR seems to back up the veracity of the memo, written by NPR Labs' Executive Director Mike Starling, the salient points of which are quoted below.

[W]e proposed that the FCC approve an interim period of symmetrical HD power with a blanket 6dB (4x) HD power increase for all FM HD stations -- commercial and noncommercial. This is four times the current power level of 1%. ... Specifically: we recommended (1) expedited deployment of alternative HD power increase solutions including asymmetrical power, (2) expedited deployment of reading service digital transition support, and (3) provisions to remediate harmful interference that may follow a closely spaced adjacent station's power increase.

The HD High Power issue involves tradeoffs in serving the public, as is the case with our analog AM and FM Stereo services. We did not expect to find a perfect "win-win" scenario and our research did not disappoint us. ... Even at the lower recommended compromise power of 4% (4x), without the expedited development of additional solutions, unregulated harmful interference could occur, with some listeners in fringe areas finding the stations un-listenable.

In the last few weeks we have been in communication with iBiquity about our compromise approach based on these findings, and they have been responsive, publicly accepting some of our proposals in principle. We will continue to work toward an agreement that we can support in good conscience.

Although iBiquity (and its broadcaster-investors) is still lobbying hard for the full (10x) power boost, it is likely the FCC will view NPR's research as a politically-acceptable compromise. The process of framing the policy debate in that fashion has already started.

What is most frustrating is that politics are still driving policy, instead of reasonable, empirical debate. If the latter were the case, NPR would be in a very strong position to change the course of digital radio in the U.S. Unfortunately, it lacks the political will and fiscal independence to do so.

Although it has happened before, the compromise of spectral integrity regarding existing broadcast services should not be allowed here - the stakes are too high, as NPR's own internal discourse clearly shows. Unfortunately, the major players in this debate define "compromise" differently than those of us outside the Beltway, whether we be broadcasters or the listening public.

10/17/09 - Robert Struble Channels Lee DeForest (and Other HD Follies) [link to this story]

I never thought I'd consider Twitter a tool for journalistic use, but it looks like I've been proven wrong.

iBiquity's President and CEO, Robert Struble, has taken to tweeting. In early September, he revealed he'd taken the train to Wall Street to float the notion of taking iBiquity public: "Good NYC trip. Wall St way more upbeat than recently. IPO pipeline better, but most think [stock market] rally was too fast."

Other than a mention-in-passing in the Washington Post more than four years ago (which coincidentally predicted iBiquity would need an IPO by 2009 to keep HD Radio viable), and less than a handful of dismissive side-comments on a couple of inside-baseball-type blogs, the notion of this process going forward (or, perhaps more importantly, gaining traction) is not being closely followed.

Here's where the history lesson comes in. In the early 20th century, Lee DeForest, inventor of the "audion" tube (which amplified telephone signals and allowed the broadcast of voice and music over the early airwaves), spent a portion of his early career engaged with unscrupulous businessmen in the practice of "pumping and dumping" stock in radio companies featuring his invention.

Partly because DeForest wasn't exactly sure how his invention worked, and partly because the regulatory paradigm of broadcasting hadn't been firmly established yet, many of his ventures failed, and DeForest spent much of his life engaged in patent lawsuits (although he was acquitted of stock fraud, his business partners weren't).

One might say the same about Bob Struble and iBiquity. Although HD Radio is "workable," it doesn't work well, and even broadcasters don't fully understand how to implement the technology (see below). Given the wobbly future of the HD Radio protocol, it is not far-fetched to see a historical parallel between Struble and DeForest.

Struble's also getting around; first to the Dominican Republic, where he "brief[ed] their President on HD Radio technology. Really."; then, to Japan, ostensibly hustling hard (even though Japan has reportedly adopted a digital broadcast protocol which is cross-compatible with digital television, radio, and telephony), and has trips to China (where Digital Radio Mondiale is already deployed) and Switzerland in the works.

To top it off, Smilin' Bob has nice words for Apple's latest iPod Nano, which decided to forego HD Radio compatibility for analog FM technology (called the Radio Data System) which allows listeners to tag songs and "record" up to 15 minutes of broadcasting: "[T]he new nano has an (analog) fm with itunes tagging, first launched with apple for hd. analog/digital synergy".

Say what? It's true that RDS provides a small amount of digital information to be combined and broadcast with an analog FM signal. However, according to this PowerPoint presentation from NPR Labs (see the transmission-chain illustration on p. 9), RDS is not inherently compatible with HD Radio - it is generated as part of the analog FM signal and then combined with HD's digital sidebands. Thus, there is no "synergy" in the technical sense of the word between the use of RDS and HD Radio's own (limited) capabilities.

Meanwhile, although HD Radio technology has been deployed in the real world for more than seven years, just now has iBiquity, in conjunction with the National Radio Systems Committee, developed the metrics by which HD-enabled FM stations can make sure they're operating the protocol properly.

According to a member of the NRSC team which led this project, "The development of transmission signal quality metrics for FM IBOC signals will give broadcasters confidence that their HD Radio transmission system is truly delivering a high-quality signal to their listeners. It is now possible to fully characterize the performance of the complete HD Radio transmitter facility [emphasis mine]."

Does this sound bass-ackwards to anyone else? Shouldn't the performance of an HD Radio transmitter facility have been "fully characterize[d]" before the technology was released into the wild? There's also no word on whether an AM-equivalent metric is in the offing - where HD interference concerns are actually better-documented.

10/4/09 - Good Riddance to BusRadio [link to this story]

It is with no small sense of satisfaction that I note the passage of BusRadio, a hare-brained idea that, for about the last three years, force-fed advertising into school buses under the guise of "safety" and then crowed to its potential sponsors about the size of its "captive audience." Details are sketchy, but late last month the company suddenly called it quits, citing adverse market forces.

BusRadio, above and beyond the ethical issues it raised, always seemed to me to be a little bit sketchy. And after several school districts - followed most recently by the FCC - took a closer look at the modus operandi of the business, it would seem investors dried up. And for good reason.

I know these are tough economic times for public schools, but school administrators would be wise to take the demise of BusRadio to heart. Based upon my time in college classrooms, I can say that students who've been through a corporatized K-12 educational environment react one of two ways when they're informed about how their schooling has been manipulated to train them as consumers.

The more savvy ones already recognize the advertisements for what they are, which makes them cynical - not just about advertising in modern American society, but also toward the system of education itself. Those who never noticed before are shocked and then angry that their young minds could be "violated" (that's a quote from a student) in such a way, having put such trust in their schools to teach them the basics - of which "proper" consumption was never (officially) on the curriculum.

Either way, the "captive audience" eventually wakes up to the manipulation and in both cases BusRadio and their ilk breed more antipathy than the service is worth. That's the lesson: school districts and administrators really should think long and hard about the tradeoff between bumping up the revenue for their districts by a few percentage points and the veritable economic and cultural prostitution of their charges.