FCC: Market to Decide Fate of HD Radio

On March 22, the Federal Communications Commission removed the final administrative hurdles to allowing the full-scale rollout of in-band, on-channel (IBOC) “HD” digital radio in the United States. It’s a huge win for the industry, though the public benefits remain to be seen.
According to staff testimony at the meeting (which starts at ~1:01:00), the FCC appears unconcerned with HD Radio’s potential pitfalls and more than willing to let the industry set the pace of radio’s analog/digital transition. According to Ann Gallagher, an engineer in the Audio Division of the FCC’s Media Bureau, “substantial additional testing” by iBiquity and the National Association of Broadcasters justifies the expedited deployment of HD Radio. Stations may now commence multicasting and separate their analog and digital antenna systems without formal FCC approval.
On the FM side, the “extended hybrid” mode of digital/analog broadcasting has been authorized, which will further fatten each FM signal on the dial, possibly to the detriment of lower-powered neighbor-stations. FM translator and booster stations, as well as LPFM stations, may also now adopt HD Radio technology “where such operation is technically possible.” This may be a kicker especially for LPFM stations, since HD Radio essentially doubles a station’s spectral footprint, which may put an LFPM station’s digital sidebands within the “no-go zone” of third-adjacent channel restrictions.
AM stations are now free to broadcast in HD 24/7, though there is nothing in the technical record that suggests iBiquity has done anything substantive to improve or mitigate interference problems caused by HD skywave signals.
Brendan Murray, an attorney in the Media Bureau’s Policy Division, told the Commissioners that they’re deferring approval of an actual HD Radio standard as developed by the National Radio Systems Committee, essentially adopting the technology “as is” with no restrictions on its subsequent modification by industry. Stations are free to use their excess digital bandwidth as they see fit – this means for purposes other than actual radio broadcasting – though for the present time stations are required to simulcast their analog signal as their primary digital content.
The Commission has also deferred placing any public-interest requirements on what broadcasters should use their extra digital bandwidth for, and declined to adopt content-encryption mechanisms (aka the “broadcast flag”) for digital radio streams. Most importantly, the FCC will not set a mandatory changeover date for radio, meaning analog signals will continue to exist into the foreseeable future; the FCC’s endorsement of HD Radio, at this point, does not include the as-yet untested all-digital broadcast mode.
Murray also noted that international negotiations are also underway to resolve “possible disputes” involving the implementation of HD Radio domestically – though the FCC has already sanctioned its deployment. These “negotiations” most certainly involve Canadian authorities, who see the implementation of HD Radio’s technological capability beyond audio content provision as a possible violation of treaties that define just what the broadcast radio bands can be used for.
Finally, all petitions for reconsideration filed in the digital radio proceeding asking the FCC to consider alternatives to the HD Radio standard have been dismissed en masse, no reason given.
As for the actual vote, Democrat Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein both went along reluctantly, concurring and dissenting in part with the order itself.
Said Copps: “By adopting a blanket authorization for digital radio, this decision confers a free pass on others to take their spectrum, bypass local communities and run more of the canned and nationalized programming that is all too common on our consolidated analog system today and which is, truth be told, responsible for many of broadcast radio‚Äôs current problems.”
But the devil’s in the details, and those we do not know: the full text of the agency’s decision has not yet been made public. Has the FCC exclusively endorsed HD Radio as the only standard that can be utilized by U.S. broadcasters? Does the agency have a timeline for resolving the large issues it has deferred deciding on now? What about HD Radio’s wholly proprietary nature: will the FCC force iBiquity to open the standard to competitive improvement?
Other coverage of the FCC’s decision notes that iBiquity, the proprietor of HD Radio, reacted in a manner like they “exhal[ed] a sigh that’s been held in for several years.” Though it appears that the FCC has stopped short of a full-on, enthusiastic endorsement of the technology, it has removed all marketplace barriers to its proliferation.
I don’t believe this is because the FCC thinks it’s the best DAB technology available, but it is the horse that the broadcast industry has its money on. We’ll now see whether that bet is a good investment or not, and we’ll be forced to learn the hard way whether the technology’s shortfalls are as egregious as feared. Marketplace forces are not inexorable, and radio’s digital transition will most likely take a decade or more to really take hold.