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News Archive: December 2012

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12/25/12 - ZoneCasting: Commercial Test in 2013 [link to this story]

GeoBroadcast Solutions, developer of the "ZoneCasting" FM transmission system, will conduct a full-scale commercial test in Florida next spring or summer. The test-station will be WRMF, an independently-owned adult-contemporary music outlet in West Palm Beach.

Although the FCC has yet to grant experimental authorization for this test, GeoBroadcast and Palm Beach Broadcasting have already secured FM booster-transmitters and a simulcast coordination system from Harris and are negotiating tower leases for the boosters.

The test calls for a 22-booster network to cover a single county, but it's unclear just how many "zones" WRMF's 100-kilowatt signal will actually be carved into.

Engineers seem skeptical of the plan. The burning question isn't about synchronizing the flagship station with its two dozen boosters; it's about what all of those extra FM signals will do to the listenability of the frequency they collectively occupy.

Balancing the signal strength between the boosters - especially for mobile receivers, which will cross between them frequently - will be critical to the system's success.

ZoneCasting's primary attraction is that it will allow radio stations to sell more localized advertisements. It seems like an extremely convoluted way to expand that dubious marketplace.

12/19/12 - All-Digital AM-HD Tests Underway [link to this story]

Proponents of revitalizing the AM band using HD Radio are now testing the all-digital signal in the wild.

The guinea-pig is WBCN 1660 - a CBS-owned station in Charlotte, North Carolina. Currently a satellite-fed conservative talk station, WBCN will switch to a satellite-fed sports talk format in the new year. In a market of some two dozen stations, WBCN ranks 20th.

Sited on the expanded AM band (which happens to be the least-populated part of the AM dial), WBCN broadcasts with 10,000 watts during the day and 1,000 at night. The all-digital tests use the station's analog power levels.

On October 18, CBS Radio filed a request for experimental authorization with the FCC to broadcast in full-digital AM-HD mode; this was granted on October 24, and it expires on February 3. CBS told the FCC it expects these tests "will be of significant value to the broadcast industry in demonstrating a possible solution to the delivery of the AM broadcasts in the presence of an ever increasing noise floor."

According to listener reports, WBCN has been periodically testing the all-digital mode, mostly on the weekends when its listenership is lowest. The last known test occurred on Sunday, December 9.

The choice of station makes sense: low ratings and a generally small broadcast area mean the chances of interference or listener disruption are minimized. Incidentally, all-digital AM-HD signals occupy a smaller footprint on the dial (20 kilohertz) than hybrid analog/digital broadcasts do (30 kilohertz), though both are still fatter than an analog AM footprint (10 kilohertz).

Without any knowledge of the testing protocols, it's impossible to evaluate just how significant the value of the results will be. Conducting these tests on WBCN represents a best-case scenario for the all-digital AM-HD protocol. Hopefully, such testing will involve multiple stations in multiple markets under varied conditions (different license classes, transmitter/antenna array combinations, ground conduction conditions, etc.)

However, if the plan to digitize the AM band evolves like the implementation of HD itself did, it will be based a relative pittance of technical data, collected in secret and immune from peer review. These tests on WBCN may be the only one (or two) of its kind before proponents take the next step of asking the FCC to authorize all-digital AM-HD broadcasts for real and full-time.

The implications of this move have yet to be discussed in any meaningful way among all constituencies involved in AM broadcasting, including the public's perspective. The opacity of the ongoing tests does not bode well for that discussion actually taking place before constitutive choices are made.

12/14/12 - HD Radio's Latest "Killer App" Isn't Radio [link to this story]

Radio World has awarded Paul Brenner its 2012 Excellence in Engineering award. Brenner, the senior VP and chief technology officer for Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, has been the industry's latest point-person regarding innovations involving HD Radio. He's led the development of a prototype smartphone with FM-HD reception capability as well as an application that melds radio reception with "value-added" content delivered over the cellular network.

Brenner's also president of the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium - an alliance of some two dozen radio companies who, along with NPR, are exploring ways to use digital radio signals to deliver real-time traffic information. Brenner estimates that there are about 12 million navigation devices in use that utilize radio to receive traffic data, and that figure's growing by about 1-2 million per year.

According to Brenner, the "founding members" of the BTC "didn't do this for money. They did it to make HD Radio something that would complete more successfully with satellite." He also says that if HD-delivered traffic data can take this business away from satellite radio, it will be a "ginormous strategic win for radio"; Radio World thinks the development represents "another win for HD Radio as a data delivery platform."

Traffic-datacasting is the third "killer app" proponents of HD have floated in the last decade. The first breakout feature was supposed to be multicasting - the ability to offer multiple program streams over a single digital FM signal. However, unlike primary HD signals, which can revert to a station’s analog transmission when the digital reception gets sketchy, these subchannels have no fallback mechanism. The relatively low power level of FM-HD signals makes such dropouts problematic.

Coupled with the fact that broadcasters have largely failed to program these additional program streams compellingly, multicasting has not caught fire. Those who do continue to multicast are promoting the programming via analog rebroadcasts on FM translators or streaming online - conduits that have nothing to do with HD Radio.

The second killer app was to be "Artist Experience," otherwise known as radio with pictures. FM-HD stations can transmit album artwork and some additional supplementary data about the artist currently on the air. The problem is that relatively few stations have implemented AE, and hardly any receivers exist that have the displays necessary for such content. Broadcasters are pushing AE as an added feature for in-vehicle "infotainment" displays, but automakers have not been quick to embrace the feature.

This brings us to traffic-datacasting. Note that this killer app has nothing to do with the primary content provided by a radio station - the programming. If broadcasters see the future of radio in something other than radio, what does that say about the medium's potential?

Notably missing from all of this innovation in the HD space is the technology's proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation. Multicasting was initially developed by National Public Radio; Artist Experience has primarily been a project of Emmis and CBS; and Emmis is leading the charge with smartphones and other datacast initiatives.

Perhaps the third killer app will be the charm. Or maybe the panoply of HD's features will reach a tipping point. But it's clear that broadcasters plan to exhaust all possible avenues before seriously considering alternate digital radio technologies or platforms as integral to the medium's future. This is a discussion that should be taking place regardless of the adoptive health of HD Radio.

12/6/12 - LPFM vs. Translators: A "Resolution" [link to this story]

Last week, the FCC approved significant rule changes to the low-power FM radio service; this week the agency formally released the text of those changes.

There's a lot of good things in the latest Report and Order. LPFM stations have finally achieved something close to technical and legal parity with FM translator stations. LPFM rules have been refined to provide a substantive preference for those who actually plan to focus on live and local programming. And the next filing window for new LPFM stations will open in the fall of next year.

The more truly community radio stations there are, the better our media environment becomes. But it's a bittersweet accomplishment in the face of the massive grab for FM spectrum that took place between 1997 - the year the first LPFM Petitions for Rulemaking were filed by the public - and today.

The short backstory: when the FCC opened its first LPFM filing window more than 10 years ago, it froze applications for new FM translator stations until 2003. That year, nearly 14,000 translator applications were filed - many were openly speculative, tendered by groups who planned to flip these stations to willing buyers for thousands of dollars apiece (if not more).

Belatedly recognizing that there were shenanigans afoot, in 2005 the agency froze the processing of further translator applications from that filing window until it had resolved the future buildout of LPFM.

The new Report and Order thus not only sets the parameters for the LPFM service's expansion, but also resolves the translator mess. The latter matter I find the most interesting.

The FCC has previously been reluctant to openly admit that the flood of FM translator applications were fishy, but in the latest ruling it minces no words. Most of the applications filed in 2003 were "for speculative purposes (either for potential sale or to game the auction system) rather than a good-faith intent to construct and operate the proposed stations." The translator-grab delayed "the processing of bona fide applications, thereby impeding efforts to bring new service to the public" and "also delayed the introduction of new LPFM service."

3,476 new FM translator construction permits have been granted from the 2003 application-flood. Had they all been built, it would've doubled the number of translator stations in the United States. Of those grants, "926 (more than 25 percent) were never constructed and 1,358 (almost 40 percent) were assigned to a party other than the applicant" (i.e., sold).

The evidence of speculation is clear and rampant."[O]ne applicant holds 24 of the 24 translator applications proposing operation within 20 kilometers of Houston’s reference coordinates and 73 applications in Texas. Two applicants hold 66 of the 74 applications proposing service to the New York City radio market."

Of the those who participated in the translator-grab, two organizations stand above the rest: Radio Assist Ministry/Edgewater Broadcasting and the Educational Media Foundation, both of which are religious entities. RAM/EB filed 4,219 applications in 2003 and received 1,046 construction permits before the freeze. RAM/EB has since tried to sell half of these, closing deals on "more than 400" and netting millions of dollars in the process.

EMF received 259 translator construction permits since 2003, of which nearly 30% have been sold, cancelled, or "otherwise terminated." It still has 292 outstanding applications.

Yet the agency's latest ruling does nothing to rectify this assault on the public airwaves. Instead, the FCC has instituted a cap on pending translator applications - each speculator will only be allowed another 70 applications to be processed, but they will only be granted if they don't preclude the placement of LPFM stations.

This cap, says the agency, is necessary "to preserve the integrity of our licensing process" - integrity that was decimated by the activity that's taken place between 2003 and today. The FCC says this course of action is the most administratively expedient way of clearing the application backlog and expediting the expansion of LPFM. It also claims any anti-trafficking rules regarding translators "would be highly subject to circumvention" and the process of monitoring for and enforcing such regulations "would unduly burden administrative resources and could delay processing" of other broadcast license applications.

This is policy-speak for closing the barn door after the horses have fled.

Ultimately, comparative numbers tell the tale. During the introductory round of LPFM licensing, more than 3,000 applications were filed, from which 1,327 construction permits were granted. Of those, 791 LPFM stations remain on the air today. About half of those are religious stations.

Meanwhile, more than 6,000 FM translators are already on the air - nearly half of which got there by anti-democratic means while the struggle for LPFM untangled itself. Although several thousand LPFM applications are expected during next year's filing window, the number of actual stations that will make it on the air will be far fewer, doubling (or perhaps tripling) the number of LPFM stations nationwide.

Translators currently outnumber LPFM stations by a factor of 7-to-1. Following the resolution of the next LPFM filing window, this disparity may be reduced to something like 3-to-1.

But if the stable of prospective LPFM applicants breaks down the way they did the first time around, churches and other religious groups are likely to be the biggest winners. Considering that many of them run LPFM stations like translators (not really live, not really local), what does that portend for the real-world impact of the service?

Incidentally, the latest Report and Order allows LPFM stations to own and operate up to two of their own FM translator stations. Instead of actually promulgating policies that curb the creative reliance on translators by broadcasters (often for purposes for which the service was never intended), the FCC seems to encourage it.

The saga of LPFM's development and the translator invasion are intimately linked. In terms of access to public spectrum, the struggle to bring meaningful diversity and public access to the airwaves has been eclipsed by the explosive growth of low-power repeater-stations.

This is likely to be the last significant opportunity for the expansion of the LPFM service - the hard work now begins to make the most of it.