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News Archive: November 2009

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11/29/09 - European DAB Effectively Failing [link to this story]

Grant Goddard is apparently my European counterpart (albeit much smarter) when it comes to watching all things digital radio. A reader pointed me to his blog, where he keeps tabs on the entire continent.

Some of these posts are "wrap-ups" of the state of DAB in Europe; there are woefully few positive signs of life to be found. Some countries are already abandoning their preexisting DAB systems, and others are reluctant to consider alternative investments and/or upgrades to next-generation DAB technology.

Compared to what I thought I knew, I now realize that I know practically nothing outside of my own borders, and this must be corrected. Compared to what's happening domestically, however, it's clear now that the digitalization of radio itself simply isn't working. The question on the minds of policymakers and citizenry alike shouldn't be, "why not?", but rather, "why bother?

11/22/09 - LPFM's Elephant In the Room [link to this story]

I was heartened to see that the requisite committees of the House of Representatives and Senate have both endorsed complementary bills that would expand the FCC's low-power FM (LPFM) service toward votes on the floors of the respective chambers. Those working the issue in D.C. are very optimistic that Congress will pass both versions of the Local Community Radio Act, harmonize them, and send a version to President Obama by the end of this Congressional session.

But it's not yet time to break out the champagne just yet. There are three reasons for this:

1. The fickleness of Congress. The Senate has just embarked on a debate over health care reform legislation that's expected to occupy it for the next few "weeks or months." Given that the first session of the 111th Congress is expected to end in a matter of months makes it possible that the Local Community Radio Act might get lost in the shuffle. If so, then the legislative process resets itself for the second session of the 111th Congress (TBA next year).

Additionally, because the language of the bills pending in both houses of Congress are not linguistically-identical, the differences will have to be hammered out in a joint House-Senate conference committee, to be convened after both full bodies have voted but before it goes to the White House.

There's always a chance (a small chance) that a legislative ne'er-do-well might slip in some negative provision to the final bill sent to President Obama. The obvious caveat is one that's been tried before - banning the creation of new LPFMs in New Jersey. Representatives and Senators from that state worry about the broadcast spectral-resources of New Jersey, considering it's wedged between two major markets (Philadelphia to the west and New York to the east). Let's hope Congress now looks at an expansion of LPFM as an easy, feel-good legislative move that garners a bit of goodwill with the voters, and stays away from poison-pills.

2. The FCC's priorities. It is all fine and good if Congress legislates an expansion to the LPFM service. In reality, it's not an expansion that's being sought - just an undoing of preemptive technical restraints put on the service more than a decade ago. While the FCC has publicly stated that it's willing to open an application window for new LPFM stations, even were to Congress to pass the Local Community Radio Act this year, it'll be at least another half-year (or more) before the FCC actually follows through to create a round of new LPFMs. And there's still no word of whether that filing window will contain opportunities for the somewhat-forgotten LP-10 class of station (those capped at 10 watts or less), which are the most likely to find space in areas of meaningful population-saturation.

However, even if such opportunities exist, they might be nullified by the elephant in the room:

3. The pending increase to HD Radio digital sidebands. To date, many working the public-interest angle on media policy in D.C. have invested an impressive amount of energy working to expand LPFM, while the ongoing FCC policy-making over the digitalization of U.S. radio has moved forward with little or no coordinated public oversight and/or resistance. This is too bad, because higher-power HD radio signals have the possibility to further decimate the listenability of any new generation of LPFM radio stations.

How? At present, FM stations are permitted to broadcast with digital "sidebands" that are 1/100th the power of their analog signals. So, if you run a 10,000 watt radio station and want to add HD "functionality," by design you are allowed effectively double your station's spectral footprint, and the digital sidebands added to your signal are capped at 100 watts - which just so happens to be the maximum-allowable effective radiated analog power of any LPFM station the country.

Currently, the FCC is considering allowing power increases for HD Radio sidebands: at a minimum, it will allow stations to quadruple their digital transmission power; at a maximum, stations may be allowed to pump up the (digital) volume by as much as 10x. Most importantly, this proposed power increase applies on the edges of all hybrid analog/digital FM signals. Therefore, at a minimum, most if not all HD-enabled FM stations will likely be running digital sidebands at power levels higher than those allowed as analog maximums in the LPFM service. The implications of this have not been substantively examined.

To put it in practical terms, under the proposed change, every licensed full-power analog radio station running at 500 watts or more will have the capability to place digital sidebands along their analog signals that either meet or exceed the power of any LPFM station, present or future. For what it's worth, HD Radio provides no net benefits for LPFM stations; under the current power-hike proposal, LPFM stations would be allowed to deploy HD sidebands at the whopping maximum potential power of 10 watts.

Given HD Radio's adoptive trajectory, it's not likely that every FM station running 500 watts or more will purchase and deploy HD Radio equipment due to this potential power hike. But if the trajectory of HD Radio's interfering characteristics continues as its proliferation does, LPFM might be marginalized by a related policy proceeding that's proceeded, ironically, along the same chronological timeline as LPFM's convolutions.

We may end up rueing the days of relatively ignoring HD in favor of what wonk once called the closest thing to instant gratification in a spectrum policymaking proceeding. Unfortunately, that's realpolitik for you: funders can easily grasp the concepts and benefits of LPFM, but HD Radio is simply too arcane to attract the attention of those who subsidize the good works in Washington. Here's hoping that investment doesn't sour.

11/15/09 - Pirate Radio Finally Lands on U.S. Shores [link to this story]

After an inexplicable two-and-a-half month delay (and name change), the feature film also known as The Boat That Rocked is now out in U.S. theaters. If it makes it to my burg, I'll check it out in the theater; otherwise, it's in my Netflix queue.

After short runs in the UK and France (the only two places it's apparently been released otherwise), it's taken in just shy of $50 million.

11/7/09 - iBiquity/NPR HD Power Hike In Play [link to this story]

As predicted, the two major players in the HD Radio space - iBiquity, the proprietor of the technology, and NPR, its primary broadcast innovator - have jointly petitioned the FCC to increase the power level of HD Radio sidebands. They're asking for a blanket 4x increase to the power of digital sidebands for both AM and FM stations, and includes proposed methodology for allowing selected stations to increase their digital power levels by 10x. The joint filing even includes helpful language the FCC is encouraged to adopt in full as as regulation. The National Association of Broadcasters was not far behind in lauding the deal.

Given that this will obviously involve a modification of the "spectral mask" under which a stations' power must exceed, this request skewers once and for all the notion that HD radio "does not use new spectrum."

Interestingly, a day after iBiquity and NPR filed their request with the FCC, NPR finally released its full report on its findings with regard to FM-HD power levels. The report has been greatly sanitized, dilutes preliminary findings, and in only one sentence does NPR come flat out and say that a blanket (10x) digital sideband increase is not "necessarily justi[fied]." It does not include the words, "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."

Those who have read the report in more detail question its methodology, basically noting that NPR only used a couple of models of receivers for the tests (far less than they did in their quest to technically quash LPFM).

At this stage, I believe the FCC will move quickly to adopt the proposal provided under the cover of NPR. The joint filing gives everybody what they want: all HD-enabled stations get a blanket digital power increase of 4x, while the aggressive can apply for power to jack their digital sidebands to 10x.

At this point, the only thing that could likely stop this from happening is if the FCC were to take a serious look at a (two-year!) pending Petition for Reconsideration that asks the fundamental question of whether HD Radio itself constitutes a spectrum-grab. This latest development seems to buttress that argument.

Failing that, the last venue of opportunity is court. Unfortunately, while those who fund public-interest law firms understand issues like broadband (the #1 buzz-word in telecom policy circles these days), LPFM, and media ownership, trying to raise money to fight a seemingly arcane FCC rulemaking is a near impossibility, even though there may be good legal precedent on which to mount a legal challenge.

Another avenue would be to collect an archive of sample HD interference sounds, so as to educate the average consumer to differentiate HD-interference from static. It might raise public awareness, but I fear the momentum of forced adoption is too far along now to do much good on that front.

The only bright spots are iBiquity's fiscal situation and its lack of penetration into the receiver market. In January, iBiquity conducted its first bona-fide layoffs, firing 15% (20) of its staff. In July, the company's director of international business development resigned (which explains why iBiquity CEO Smilin' Bob is jet-setting all over the globe this fall). That same month, iBiquity raised $42 million dollars in money to keep operating. It came with lots of strings attached: some of the funds came in stock from major broadcast investors (like Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Entercom and Radio One); the rest came from three venture firms. iBiquity's debt to its investors is reaching $200 million.

On the receiver side, the company's getting trounced. While some high-end auto manufacturers are starting to offer HD Radio as an option in select vehicles, that's nothing compared to General Motors' announcement last month that it'll include wi-fi as a standard option in most of its fleet. If it eventually brings 4G capability to the car, that'll mean internet radio while you drive. That, compared with the prevalence of satellite radio in vehicles, puts HD a distant third in the war for the dashboard.

Even more damning, the uptake of HD in portable receivers is abysmal; iBiquity had to find some no-name electronics maker to make its own first portable device, and the only other current route to adoption is through the Zune. Most notably, when Apple rolled out its iPod Nano shortly afterward, it included analog radio functionality. To put it mildly, consumer electronics manufacturers are not exactly rushing to embrace HD Radio.

It's almost like this power hike is HD Radio's last technical gasp. Will listeners trade off analog listenability for questionable HD improvement? Either way, the consequences could be dire.

11/2/09 - Just in Time for the Holidays... [link to this story]

...I decided to remove the store-section of this web site. For years I have affiliated with alternative or independent retailers of books and music, but nobody really bit, partially because e-commerce on this site is somewhat antithetical to its nature; it's really a labor of love. (Even so, many thanks to those who do occasionally throw a buck or few my way via the donate button).

Apologies to those who had linked to my book reviews; perhaps those will be resurrected in the future.

The end of the year's always a busy time; there's Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my birthday, which falls in-between the two. So, if you're ever in a generous spirit, instead of obliquely imploring you to buy sh*t whereby I get a commission, why don't you simply give the gift of knowledge?

Yeah, that's right: buy me a book. I've created an Amazon wish-list; so far, most of it constitutes things I read for my preliminary exams. Scholars are supposed to have big libraries, and mine is just plain pathetic. Being a Cold War kid, there's also some stuff in there to satisfy my morbid fascination with nuclear war. New or used, I care not.

While you're at it, if there's some tome you think I should really be checking out, drop a line and I'll add it to the list. That is all.