HD Radio's Multifaceted Search for Traction

We’re going into HD Radio‘s 11th year on the air. So far, the technology’s proliferation has been underwhelming, to put it mildly. However, proponents of HD are working on several projects which they hope will break it into the mainstream. They are:
1. Making the AM band all-digital. Of the various tactics in play, this is the one which HD proponents have the most potential control over. First they must convince the FCC to adopt all-digital HD broadcasting for use on the AM band; then they must convince stations to take the plunge.
iBiquity and the National Association of Broadcasters are currently in the midst of all-digital AM broadcast tests on a single station in North Carolina. Considering the vapidity of previous HD testing, it’s quite unlikely that the technology’s proponents will spend much time and effort on a more comprehensive regimen – making for a flimsy technical foundation on which the FCC will make any adoptive decisions.
Given HD Radio’s proprietary nature, it’s highly unlikely that the FCC will mandate that all AM stations convert to HD, though it could propose an incentive program to effectively re-allocate the AM band to viable HD outlets. This would most likely include some sort of incentive program for lower-power AM stations to turn in their licenses in exchange for an FM allocation, or perhaps a monetary payoff for stations that are willing to relinquish their licenses.
Any plan for the full-on digitalization of the AM band must involve some sort of band-reorganization. This won’t be accomplished without a fight, though, but iBiquity et. al. are in this for the long haul – and if they can achieve such a beachhead on the AM dial, it may breathe new life into the technology. Although the number of AM-HD stations on the air continues to decline (with just about 200 of the 4,700 U.S. AM stations adopting it to-date, and less than 70 on the air in HD 24/7), the success of this particular effort is questionable – but not impossible. Expect major developments on this front in 2013.
2. Increasing HD receiver penetration in vehicles. Many automobile manufacturers now include HD in at least some of their products, but hardly any have committed to making it standard equipment across their entire fleets, and the driving public seems oblivious to the technology itself. iBiquity, the NAB, and Emmis Communications (now HD’s primary innovator) are pursuing several avenues to get HD a foothold and demonstrate its value in vehicles. This includes pushes for manufacturers to implement the "Artist Experience" feature of the technology (i.e., radio with pictures) and to utilize the data capacity of FM-HD signals to deliver traffic information via navigation services either included in the car or purchased aftermarket.
Interestingly, none of these tactics emphasize what is currently radio’s primary service – the broadcasting of noteworthy audio content. It’s quite a stretch to assume that those who use HD for datacasting will "adopt" it as a listening platform, especially since it’s abundantly clear that automakers are much more interested in expanding wireless internet access into vehicles for this purpose.
Yet you can expect any vehicle that utilizes any component of HD to be treated by proponents as an actual or potential HD listener, thereby perpetuating the notion that digital broadcasting has an interested and growth-oriented audience; this is disingenuous at best, but that’s a trait which has plagued the development and promotion of HD technology from day one.
3. Increasing HD receiver penetration in smartphones. Broadcasters are working hard to get phone manufacturers and telecom companies to adopt FM reception technology. Although many models of smartphones already have the hardware onboard to receive analog FM radio signals, most don’t have the firmware and software to utilize it. Hence Emmis’ large push with NextRadio, which enables radio reception capability in phones that have the necessary chipset and provides a backchannel form of "interactivity" with broadcasts.
The proponents of HD technology hope to use acceptance of analog FM reception capability of smartphones as a trojan horse to eventually make HD reception capability possible as well. However, outside of one prototype smartphone with FM-HD capability, this potential remains in the realm of what Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel calls "vaporware."
Paul also thinks that any uptake of radio reception into phones is too little, too late: "One might think that I am that sort of consumer for whom it would be important. Yet, none of my smartphone choices over the last five years have been driven by FM radio inclusion….The FM radio is frosting, not the cake."
Radio consultant and futurist Mark Ramsey is similarly skeptical. "Technology is driving towards empowering consumers to take control of their own experiences and reflect their own tastes, but this technology – since it matches what’s currently on the radio precisely – is blind to who you are and deaf to what you want." He brings up the radical notion that perhaps radio stations would find more purchase in the convergent now if they focused on what they used to do best: "[D]on’t imagine that this substitutes for ever-better on-air content." AM radio is also completely absent from any of the industry’s smartphone plans.
Yet any uptake of radio, HD or otherwise, into smartphones will help to keep the dream of HD alive. In vehicles, manufacturers have adopted HD as its relative cost and risk has decreased, not because it’s a compelling technology. It’s just another piece of bling to spice up the wholesale redesign of the dashboard infotainment space. Perhaps the same scenario will play out with smartphones – if so, any meaningful uptake may take several years.
4. Using secondary FM services to promote HD content. In all of the discussion about the uptake of HD, you don’t hear a lot of talk about broadcasters. That’s because HD Radio proliferation plateaued back in 2006 and has crawled along ever since, with just a handful of new stations adopting the technology in 2012.
The use of FM translators to rebroadcast analog versions of FM-HD subchannels has turned out to be the technology’s only tangible "success story," though it does nothing to encourage actual HD listening. The proliferation of translators among AM stations also provides those broadcasters with an out should the AM band be re-allocated for all-digital use.
The increased use of FM booster stations is also part of the HD game-plan. For several years, iBiquity and NAB have tested the use of chains of boosters to increase the robustness of digital radio service. Furthermore, GeoBroadcast Solutions’ proposed "ZoneCasting" system uses boosters to serve up hyperlocal content. These are both functions which HD itself needs to incorporate for survival. Since the FCC has already authorized the use of FM-HD on secondary FM services, perhaps there’ll be a similar rush for booster permits in coming years as their creative utility increases.
The overall strategy on the HD front this year seems to be to simultaneously pursue many avenues of activity in the hopes that one will pay off. The lack of coordination regarding these efforts suggests that the industry as a whole still doesn’t have much of a clue of what the inherent potentiality of HD Radio might actually be. For example, it’s hard to see how the press for all-digital AM-HD adoption ties into the smartphone campaign.
But at this stage of the game, proponents are simply seeking signs of life which they can then parlay to regulators and other industry players as "evidence" that HD technology remains viable. The more I research this subject, the less hopeful I am that the industry and those who regulate it will ever be open to considering alternatives to HD – billions of dollars have been invested in the technology over the last two decades, and that’s just too much money to write off.