At Least We Tried

When the Federal Communications Commission approved the rollout of digital radio (“HD Radio,” as it’s being branded to consumers) in October, it did so with one qualifier. Interference is a big problem with the digital radio standard that the U.S. broadcast industry has developed for itself, and the FCC admitted as much when it refused to authorize digital transmissions on the AM band during nighttime hours.
AM stations that have tested the in-band-on-channel (IBOC) digital radio technology on the air discovered it could cause heavy interference to stations on nearby frequencies, manifesting as a hash-type noise rendering the stations unlistenable. The FCC actually received complaints from radio listeners during the digital radio rulemaking proceedings about the tests and the interference, and they are on the record. The FM version of HD Radio is also susceptible to interference problems.
This did not stop the FCC from authorizing its use with great fanfare, save the one caveat on nighttime AM broadcasting.
However, this tiny prohibition stuck in the craw of at least one radio engineer: Glen Clark, who (coincidentally) helped develop the IBOC digital radio standard. He (through the D.C. law firm Garvey Schubert Barer) has petitioned the FCC to reconsider its rule on digital AM broadcasting.
Clark argues that the comprehensive ban on digital transmissions at night is overly broad; by performing some simple calculations involving each station’s signal pattern, the FCC could individually approve AM stations to go digital round-the-clock if the mathematical proof predicts they’ll be harmless.
Clark’s proposal also suggests the creation of differing levels of digital operation for AM stations – approving partial use of the IBOC technology in nighttime broadcast conditions where the math shows too much interference.
This acknowledges the fact that some AM stations may never be allowed to fully utilize the new digital standard – if, as is expected later this year, the FCC officially consecrates its adoption (it really has no choice – the technology is being implemented as you read this, with more stations going digital every week). However, it cleverly argues its way around this problem, making for the most notable quote of the 21-page document:
“Ample Commission precedent exists to allow stations to enter into mutual-interference agreements. It is to be anticipated that in some instances both the studied station and the station which blocks it may be owned by the same licensee, facilitating the likelihood of agreement.” [Emphasis added]
Translation: Consolidation of AM station ownership is so advanced now that many interference-prone stations are or will be owned by the same company. If one company owns two stations that interfere with each other, we should let the company manage the interference problem, and the FCC shouldn’t worry about it.
Left unspoken, of course, is the fact that digital hash will blot out some stations on the dial; which ones fall victim to the noise floor isn’t yet certain. Would you listen to radio anymore if there were fewer stations to choose from?
Contrast this with the hoopla over the FCC’s creation of a low power FM (LPFM) radio service in 2000, which was gutted from its original form due to so-called “interference concerns” – all of which were either refuted or dismissed as de minimis during the agency’s rulemaking. Interference was the sledgehammer used by the broadcast industry to convince Congress to intervene and squelch LPFM.
The opposite conditions exist today with digital radio: the industry and FCC both admit interference is a problem – and the problem has been documented – yet radio’s transition to digital can not be stopped.
Don’t let it ever be said that somebody didn’t try, though: Glen Clark isn’t the first person to ask the FCC for a second look at HD Radio. Unlike Clark, who seeks an expansion of the technology’s use, the other petitions were critical of IBOC technology and challenged the FCC’s adoption of a flawed broadcast standard. A coalition of more than 30 individuals and groups (myself included) raised concerns on several grounds, of which interference was only one.
By law, the FCC should have acted on those petitions before authorizing the rollout of “HD Radio,” at the very least giving them a cursory yea or nay. Doing so would have fulfilled the statutory procedural requirement of acknowledging formal public input on the issue.
Instead, the agency completely ignored us.
That ignorance could be challenged in court, and the odds are high that a judge would force the FCC to slow down and take a closer look at digital radio. The case would be made even stronger if the FCC acts on Clark’s petition, regardless of its decision. The volunteer attorney behind the IBOC opposition effort, Don Schellhardt, sums up the chances of a lawsuit against the FCC this way: “We got them by the balls on the law.”
The only thing standing between justice and a digital disaster on the radio dial is money – a lot of money. Federal court lawsuits against a government agency are not cheap – they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more than our ragtag coalition can muster.
Like plenty of other FCC business, this trainwreck the and trashing of any adherence to a public interest standard is probably unstoppable. But when the radio dial goes digital and becomes even less listener-friendly, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
And never forget the adage about getting the best justice you can afford, for it is true. In our case, that would be none.
See the archive of filed comments to the FCC on digital radio:
Complete listing. To run the search yourself, go to this page in the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) and type “99-325” (without quotes) into the search box
– To see the spirited (yet probably futile) attempt to prevent the madness, visit this page and type “amherst alliance” in the search box marked “5. Filed on Behalf of”