FCC to Further Rubber-Stamp IBOC/HD Radio

The Federal Communications Commission’s monthly meeting goes down on Thursday, and the second-to-last item on its agenda is the adoption of a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the certification of “HD Radio,” the digital audio broadcast technology of-choice for the U.S. radio industry.
Though the HD Radio system has not yet been formally certified, a relatively vigorous campaign is underway to deploy it. Rush deployment before formal certification of a technology results in what is called “the creation of facts on the ground,” demonstrating the technology’s functionality and increasing the pressure on its regulator to approve its usage (since it’s already out in the wild, failing to certify it puts the regulator in the position of nullifying billions of dollars of investment).
The FCC could very well give radio stations blanket authorization to go digital with little or no extra administrative effort (right now stations must write a letter informing it of their digital operation and its technical parameters). The multi-channel mode of digital broadcasting, which just debuted this year and was not initially offered as a feature of the in-band, on-channel (IBOC) protocol used by the HD system, should also get an official nod.
AM broadcasters, especially, could feel some pain over this. The fattened signals of HD radio stations are especially prone to interference on the AM band, and the problem is especially wicked at night. Up until now, AM stations have been restricted to broadcasting in the daytime only. Perhaps the FCC will now allow stations to go digital at night, either with some sort of reduced power and/or unless they cause interference complaints. That should sound lovely.
If this “deliberation” is like previous ones, the Commissioners will speak of the general wonderfulness of radio’s digitalization and are quite unlikely to bring up HD’s negatives, including its interference problems and proprietary nature.
The double-suck thing about the FCC’s digital radio proceeding is, it began at about the same time as the great LPFM debate began. As others have noted, while the grassroots lobbyists glommed onto LPFM as “the closest thing you can get to immediate gratification in a spectrum policy proceeding,” the business of making the industry’s own broadcast technology the medium’s standard in the digital realm tottered along with little notice (relative to the interest LPFM generated). This may turn out to be a major strategic error, if the fattening of every station’s footprint on the dial squeezes the weakest stations the most.
Not like the FCC has paid much attention to the public interest in the context of digital radio. Though LPFM may have been the focus at the time, many of those motivated by the LPFM rulemaking engaged in the digital radio debate, especially in the second and subsequent full rounds of comments and reply-comments. I’ve been reading this record of public debate as part of my research in school. I’m nowhere near done, but already a few things are pretty clear.
The first is that the FCC all but ignored the public input it received, and those it deigned to address were brushed aside with language nearly identical to the industry’s perspective on the technology. That’s because HD Radio’s developer, iBiquity, and its founding investors (name your broadcast chain here) flooded the FCC’s docket with well-scripted talking points, and paid regular, insistent visits to FCC headquarters to personally push the issue along.
As a result, the FCC did not even attempt to compare the industry’s preferred standard with any others. The FCC claims that since there was no industry backing for an alternative, there was no reason to explore alternatives. No need for an independent, comparative analysis of this fundamental shift in radio as we know it.
I think we’re being served up a half-baked technology that in the short term will make major broadcasters extra money but in the long term will provide services that won’t even be called “radio” anymore. The money-momentum is already too far along to stop HD from having a go at us. Now the marketplace will decide whether this is really the future of radio or not.
I’ve heard nothing about any pirate-play with the HD protocol as of yet, though they say someone’s already done it with digital television. A new can of worms for a new century.