Expanding the Options for Digital AM

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently spoke at the the Missouri Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention, where he repeated his call for the FCC to undertake an "AM Revitalization Initiative." Telling the assembled broadcasters that "you’ve got a friend in me," he again listed off the possible policy options to help the beleaguered band, one of which includes its complete digitalization.
If Pai is truly a friend of broadcasters and the public interest, and seriously considers digitalization a viable option for AM, he should open the inquiry to alternatives to HD Radio, such as Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM).
Founded in 1998 by a consortium representing interests in more than 30 countries, Digital Radio Mondiale works on the AM, FM, and shortwave bands. It represents a true qualitative improvement over analog broadcasting, both in terms of sound quality and service extensibility. DRM allows multicasting and datacasting on all bands and, perhaps most importantly, is an open standard, unencumbered by a restrictive licensing regime. (Of all of HD Radio’s fundamental detriments, its proprietary nature is the one that’s done the most to hinder its adoption.)
During the last decade, DRM has been considered an also-ran among digital radio technologies, primarily because it was the last to be launched, years behind behind HD Radio and Eureka 147-based DAB. However, this has allowed the proponents of DRM to watch and learn from the developmental and adoptive mistakes of its predecessors, and they often position the system as complementary to other technologies. Consider the case of Australia: DAB+ multiplex systems are online in the country’s major metropolitan areas, but it’s impractical to provide nationwide DAB coverage over an entire continent, so DRM may fill in as a regional service.
In recent years, commitments to Digital Radio Mondiale have been on the increase, at a pace that makes HD Radio look like it’s standing still. Several countries now broadcast extensively using DRM on shortwave (it’s the only digital radio technology that works on that band) and others are developing plans to deploy it on AM as well. For example, public service broadcaster All India Radio – "the country’s dominant radio service" – will migrate to DRM over the next three years.
Receiver availability remains an issue for Digital Radio Mondiale just as it is for other digital radio technologies, but considering the commitments to DRM from countries such as China, India, and Russia, it’s unlikely that consumer electronics manufacturers will ignore the potential marketplace for long. Furthermore, a Dutch-based semiconductor company has recently unveiled a multi-standard digital radio chip, which opens up the possibility of a future all-in-one digital radio receiver. In the meantime, people have been building their own DRM receivers using open source software and a modified analog radio.
Any serious FCC-led "AM Revitalization Initiative" should be amenable to considering digital standards for the band other than HD Radio. The biggest hurdle to this would be industry resistance to the idea of jettisoning its investments in HD. It would also require the FCC to rescind its 2002 declaration to patently ignore alternative technologies – a decision made before Digital Radio Mondiale was fully cooked.
HD’s adoption is in a state of malaise because the technology simply doesn’t work well; this is especially true on AM. Representatives of Clear Channel recently told Commissioner Pai that the nation’s largest broadcaster considered an AM-HD transition "challenging" due to the amount of money it would cost broadcasters to make the switchover. However, relative to the industry’s total investment in HD, abandoning the protocol on AM would be an almost negligible writeoff, and at least two U.S. transmitter manufacturers already produce gear that is both HD and DRM compatible.
We really can’t say for sure what the potential for DRM is until there a proper stateside analysis of the technology, or even better yet, a comparative study of DRM and HD Radio.
I’m of the mind that there is no magic bullet regarding radio’s digital transition, but so long as radio broadcasters are committed to the notion of maintaining an independent infrastructure (read: keeping their spectrum) as part of the process, they will have to find a viable digital radio standard. Considering the state of AM, perhaps it’s not that radical of an idea to consider alternative standards. Were Commissioner Pai to suggest this out loud, he may be surprised and intrigued by the reaction.