FCC Admits Ignorance on Digital Radio, Adopts Standard Anyway

It took only 14 minutes today for the Federal Communications Commission to dramatically decide the future of radio broadcasting.
The FCC adopted a Report and Order authorizing the rollout of digital radio. The vote allows radio stations to immediately install In-Band On-Channel (IBOC)-based transmission equipment and, upon notifying the FCC, begin broadcasting using the new transmission standard.
Stations will initially run a hybrid analog/digital signal, so as to not make everybody’s analog receivers immediately obsolete. At some undetermined time in the future the FCC will require radio broadcasting to go completely digital – the hope is when that time comes the public will have forked out the hundreds of dollars each for the new “HD Radios” they’ll need.
While this R&O gives the green light for the rollout of digital radio, it doesn’t actually define IBOC’s operational standards. Those will be worked out “in the field” over the course of the next several months, if by which point problems are discovered with the technology there will be no way to put the genie back into the bottle. I suspect the Commission rushed through this authorization so that manufacturers could get new digital radios out into the stores in time for the holiday shopping season. What good would those be without digital signals on the air?
The vote was 4-0 in favor of adopting the unproven IBOC standard (the fifth seat on the Commission remains vacant). The Commissioners seemed completely unconcerned about the documented evidence illustrating potentially disastrous interference problems with IBOC technology. But the whopper came from the mouth of Michael Copps, who admitted with incredible candor he had no idea what the hell he was unleashing:
“A few questions remain to be settled, including how the IBOC system will function in the real world; what is the potential for and extent of interference that IBOC could cause to existing services; and the technical feasibility of nighttime AM IBOC transmissions.” [Emphasis added]
Everybody involved pretty much admitted from the outset that the digital radio initiative is all about giving the broadcast industry more avenues to make money rather than actually improving radio from the perspective of the listener. Watching the meeting via streaming video felt rather like watching a puppet show.
To jump-start the analog-to-digital conversion, iBiquity (the sole manufacturer of IBOC transmitters) is waiving its IBOC “technology license fee” for any station that buys a digital transmitter before the end of the year. Such a move could save stations thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on the purchase. But since it seems nobody’s quite sure just how IBOC digital radio actually works yet, chances are many will wait to make the switch for as long as they can – much like television stations have dragged their heels on the migration to DTV.
Of course, if the hype over going digital is hiding an ulterior motive, like a grab to grant radio stations twice as much bandwidth on the dial, more interference may be a good thing. With today’s ruling, the potential uses for the broadcast spectrum have expanded way beyond providing an audio service. Shit, making radio sound worse could actually help prime the public for changing the nature of the medium itself.
In Europe, the launch of digital radio began years ago, and it failed dismally. As a result, media companies are now openly planning to plunder the broadcast airwaves for wireless computer networking and mobile phone service bandwidth.
Sound familiar, Cincinnati? As DigitalDisaster.org’s Chris Maxwell wrote this afternoon, “Hmmmm. I believe if I look up the definition of fascism, one of the defining elements is a near indistinquishability between the Government elite and the Corporate elite.” He recommends people monitor IBOC digital signals as they multiply and document any interference they hear.
Unfortunately, the countdown is now underway on radio’s metamorphosis from a unique outlet for mass communication to a pipe for ones and zeroes. Will it still retain its soul?
You can watch and listen to the deed being done at our special report on the IBOC vote.