Details Emerge of ZoneCast Pitch to FCC

This week a D.C. communications law firm working with Geo Broadcast Solutions (GBS) unveiled the company’s Petition for Rulemaking at the FCC, which proposes to allow FM radio stations to use multiple booster transmitters for the provision of “targeted” programming.
The proposal stands to dramatically reconfigure the nature of an FM broadcast station: instead of one large transmitter covering a single area, GBS’ ZoneCast technology would allow stations to deploy as many as seven booster stations on their parent frequency, with each booster targeting a specific region of a station’s primary coverage area.
GBS’ 259-page filing (most of which is testing data, and some of which is duplicative) urges acceptance by the FCC because it would “be consistent with and further effectuate the Commission’s longstanding goal of promoting localism. It would also improve the viability of a financially challenged radio industry and would benefit the U.S. economy as a whole.”
ZoneCasting is a proprietary technology, and GBS has patents pending on the control mechanisms that allow for the synchronization of multiple boosters in a station’s constellation. There is resultingly no detailed explanation of how the technology actually works in the petition, other than that it interfaces nicely with automation systems and wireless Ethernet or WiMAX links are used to feed specialized programming to each booster.
Interestingly, ZoneCasting seems to be designed to primarily allow the simultaneous broadcast of “different audio messages,” such as commercials or public service announcements, across a station’s chain of boosters. The proposal spends a lot of time explaining how such targeted programming could be a boon for advertisers and political candidates, as they could conceivably buy localized spot-coverage at a fraction of the price of traditional broadcast adverts, thereby providing more bang for their buck – as well as multiplying the spot-related revenue streams of stations nationwide.
The petition does invoke the possibility of stations providing hyper-localized news, multi-lingual programming, or even the broadcast of customized religious programming “to be received by different denominations.” However, I find it highly unlikely that broadcasters would increase their investments in program creation, which have been pared to the bone over the last 15 years. GBS, too, seems to want to discourage such practices, proposing a limitation on localized long-form programming to three hours per day or less.
One station in Utah tested the technology in 2010, and another station in Florida tried it in 2011. Both tests utilized three booster-stations. GBS reported that ZoneCast allowed both stations to successfully send unique “audio messages” through their network of boosters without causing more than “minimal” interference to other boosters or the primary stations.
There are, however, some big unanswered questions about the ZoneCast technology. Most notably, how much would it cost an average station to construct its own network of boosters, not to mention pay for the proprietary system? If multiple stations in a single market adopted it, what kind of engineering and regulatory intricacy would be required to build out booster networks that minimize the potential for interference? It is one thing to responsibly site a single transmitter, but quite another to site up to seven operating on the same frequency.
Furthermore, how compatible is the technology with HD Radio? This is an intriguing question because the proprietors of digital broadcasting are deep in their own negotiations with the FCC to allow the placement of separate, digital-only booster stations to improve the coverage area and robustness of HD signals. If an FM-HD station wanted to use both HD Radio and ZoneCast, would they need to build two separate booster networks – one for analog programming and one for digital?
The FCC is accepting comment on the GBS petition through May 23. The company’s D.C. advocates expect the discussion to focus more on the engineering principles of the technology than its transformational potential for FM broadcasting more generally; the latter will come if the FCC moves ahead with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the issue.