Digital Radio Moves Incrementally at FCC

Last month the Commission released a further  Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry on the implementation of digital radio in the U.S. When it first gave the nod to the rollout of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) in 2002, it admitted that it was not sure how it would work in the real world, but the intervening two years seem have provided the “evidence” necessary to move ahead with its nationwide expansion.
While the broadcast industry has portrayed the In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) DAB transmission system as ready for deployment, the truth is only the hybrid digital/analog “transition” system has actually been deployed, or is even close to ready. The National Radio Systems Committee (a joint effort of the National Association of Broadcasters and Consumer Electronics Association) has not yet tested the “all-digital systems.”
In the footnote to its discussion of the IBOC-DAB technology, the FCC cites as its reference the web site of iBiquity – not exactly the most comprehensive or objective source of information. The FCC itself appears to be wholly disengaged from any field testing or analysis of the digital radio system.
Of the 13,000+ radio stations in the United States, 600-650 “will broadcast in an all-digital mode by the end of 2004.” The transition’s beginning in the largest markets and will percolate more slowly into rural areas.
iBiquity estimates the average cost of converting a radio station from analog to digital will be $75,000; the estimated range is actually $30,000-$200,000.
The Commission at this point in time declines to set a mandatory deadline by which radio will go digital, but it invites comments “on what changes in our rules would likely encourage radio stations to convert to a hybrid or an all-digital format,” and would especially like guidance on how to spur the transition “if the marketplace falters.”
The maximum bitrate allowed for digital audio broadcasting is 96kbps (FM); this may be scaled back to 64kbps to free up bandwidth for “additional services.” The FCC is mulling over the adoption of a minimum bitrate to guarantee broadcasters provide “high definition audio” and not squeeze their channels for max bandwidth to utilize for non-broadcast purposes.
There still exists a significant problem with potential interference to subcarrier radio services, like reading services for the blind. “DAB interference with analog SCA services has been an issue in this proceeding. iBiquity performed field tests which showed that, in some circumstances, analog SCA receivers may receive significant new interference from IBOC stations operating on second-adjacent channels.”
On top of that remain numerous concerns with the viability of AM digital operation. Audio quality has to be sacrificed in order to even use the IBOC scheme on the AM band, and there are significant problems with interference caused by the digital “sidebands” of AM signals, especially on first and second-adjacent channels(!). These problems have led at least one AM station in the Denver market to discontinue IBOC-DAB broadcasts.
Remember that the LPFM plan was nearly aborted for similar reasons, which were laughable in that context, but very real here; the double standard could not be more clear.
Then there’s the money issue – digital broadcasting opens the door to potential subscription-based data services:
Should we allow for subscription services as long as the licensee provides at least one free digital audio stream, as we do for digital television? One proposal would be to permit subscription services as long as they do not derogate the free services a radio station broadcasts. [The Commission is required by law] to collect fees from digital television stations if they use their spectrum to offer subscription ancillary and supplementary services. However, there is no analogous requirement for digital audio broadcasting….Does the Commission have the authority to impose such fees? Under what provisions? What interest would such a fee serve?
Attached at the end is a Notice of Inquiry about the implementation of copy protection standards for digital radio broadcasts. Such a system is already under development for digital television, and the FCC wants input on the notion of locking down radio.
Comments on this proposal/inquiry are due June 16, with replies to follow a month later.