Bring the Noise

The implementation of digital radio is on the agenda for the FCC’s meeting this Thursday (Oct. 10). According to the summary, “The Commission will consider a First Report and Order concerning digital operation by terrestrial radio broadcasters.”
What this means is that the FCC will lay out the ground rules for the rollout of in-band on-channel (IBOC) digital audio broadcasting. It has been noted by multiple sources (both from within the radio industry and without) that IBOC is a technological nightmare with the potential to cause massive interference between stations on both the FM and AM dials. Its sound quality may also be worse than conventional analog signals.
When radio goes completely digital (which is projected to happen before the end of the decade) you’ll have to buy new receivers to listen to it because IBOC is incompatible with current receiver technology. Stations will have to fork out lots of money, too, for new broadcast equipment and royalty fees to use the new standard.
Maybe that’s why the rest of the world (with the exception of the U.S. and Japan) rejected IBOC. But its development has been jointly funded by media powerhouses like ABC/Disney, Clear Channel, Viacom, Lucent, and others – and dammit, they must get a return on their investment, regardless of the expense to the public interest, right?
In a related twist, Motorola is rolling out new receiver technology that can improve the reception and sound quality of existing radio signals, hoping to take advantage over the slowness to go digital. While I’m loath to take sides in corporate competitions, it seems more prudent to improve on existing analog radio technology than reinvent the wheel as a pretext to grabbing more spectrum real estate.
Regardless of these concerns, look for the rollout of digital radio to begin early next year. We’ll have a full report on the FCC’s action after this week’s meeting.