Alternatives to HD Radio

Believe it or not, “HD Radio” is not the only digital audio broadcast system in the world. Alternatives do exist: one of the most promising is Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) (which should not be confused with “digital rights management,” a whole other (evil) animal), which has been jointly developed and deployed by some 30 countries around the world. It’s an open-source standard, which has the potential to operate on either new or incumbent spectrum, and contains the potential to practically advance the service terrestrial broadcasting provides; it is not just a “better than analog” standard, featuring chimerical vaporware such as “buy buttons” for the download of digital music – services for which radio was not initially designed.
At present, while Digital Radio Mondiale is gaining traction around the world, it’s all but been ruled out as a potential alternative to HD Radio in the United States, though that may be changing. A coalition of spectrum experts has been formed to advance the notion that broadcasters should be afforded the choice of picking between HD and DRM. As of now, this advocacy is restricted toward the possible deployment of Digital Radio Mondiale on the shortwave and AM bands only; although an FM version of the technology is under development, HD’s relatively slow but steady adoption by U.S. FM broadcasters may make it a tough sell in the marketplace (even though some transmitter manufacturers are making dual-compatible HD/DRM transmitters, and there’s no reason why receiver manufacturers couldn’t follow suit).
On a related note, a coalition of public interest advocates, including the Prometheus Radio Project, Benton Foundation, Free Press, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, and the Center for Digital Democracy filed a petition for reconsideration of the FCC’s latest report and order regarding the rollout of HD Radio. [Disclaimer: I provided some minor technical consultation to the authors of this document.] The petition asks the Commission to better justify the spectrum windfall it has handed to incumbent broadcasters – essentially letting them double or triple their footprints (and subsequent programming capacity) with no reasonable justification or renumeration (either in the form of cash or public interest program obligations).
It’s anyone’s guess whether the FCC will take these substantive critiques seriously and better defend its rationale, but my inkling is this (in conjunction with the coalition mentioned above) may be just the first volley in a long (albeit belated) public campaign for better accountability from both broadcasters and regulators – defining just what the “public interest” means in a digital radio world, and whether or not the anointed technological path to that world is the right one.