iBiquity/NPR HD Power Hike In Play

As predicted, the two major players in the HD Radio space – iBiquity, the proprietor of the technology, and NPR, its primary broadcast innovator – have jointly petitioned the FCC to increase the power level of HD Radio sidebands. They’re asking for a blanket 4x increase to the power of digital sidebands for both AM and FM stations, and includes proposed methodology for allowing selected stations to increase their digital power levels by 10x. The joint filing even includes helpful language the FCC is encouraged to adopt in full as as regulation. The National Association of Broadcasters was not far behind in lauding the deal.
Given that this will obviously involve a modification of the “spectral mask” under which a stations’ power must exceed, this request skewers once and for all the notion that HD radio “does not use new spectrum.”
Interestingly, a day after iBiquity and NPR filed their request with the FCC, NPR finally released its full report on its findings with regard to FM-HD power levels. The report has been greatly sanitized, dilutes preliminary findings, and in only one sentence does NPR come flat out and say that a blanket (10x) digital sideband increase is not “necessarily justi[fied].” It does not include the words, “Even at the lower recommended compromise power of 4% (4x), without the expedited development of additional solutions, unregulated harmful interference could occur, with some listeners in fringe areas finding the stations un-listenable.”
Those who have read the report in more detail question its methodology, basically noting that NPR only used a couple of models of receivers for the tests (far less than they did in their quest to technically quash LPFM).
At this stage, I believe the FCC will move quickly to adopt the proposal provided under the cover of NPR. The joint filing gives everybody what they want: all HD-enabled stations get a blanket digital power increase of 4x, while the aggressive can apply for power to jack their digital sidebands to 10x.
At this point, the only thing that could likely stop this from happening is if the FCC were to take a serious look at a (two-year!) pending Petition for Reconsideration that asks the fundamental question of whether HD Radio itself constitutes a spectrum-grab. This latest development seems to buttress that argument.
Failing that, the last venue of opportunity is court. Unfortunately, while those who fund public-interest law firms understand issues like broadband (the #1 buzz-word in telecom policy circles these days), LPFM, and media ownership, trying to raise money to fight a seemingly arcane FCC rulemaking is a near impossibility, even though there may be good legal precedent on which to mount a legal challenge.
Another avenue would be to collect an archive of sample HD interference sounds, so as to educate the average consumer to differentiate HD-interference from static. It might raise public awareness, but I fear the momentum of forced adoption is too far along now to do much good on that front.
The only bright spots are iBiquity’s fiscal situation and its lack of penetration into the receiver market. In January, iBiquity conducted its first bona-fide layoffs, firing 15% (20) of its staff. In July, the company’s director of international business development resigned (which explains why iBiquity CEO Smilin’ Bob is jet-setting all over the globe this fall). That same month, iBiquity raised $42 million dollars in money to keep operating. It came with lots of strings attached: some of the funds came in stock from major broadcast investors (like Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Entercom and Radio One); the rest came from three venture firms. iBiquity’s debt to its investors is reaching $200 million.
On the receiver side, the company’s getting trounced. While some high-end auto manufacturers are starting to offer HD Radio as an option in select vehicles, that’s nothing compared to General Motors’ announcement last month that it’ll include wi-fi as a standard option in most of its fleet. If it eventually brings 4G capability to the car, that’ll mean internet radio while you drive. That, compared with the prevalence of satellite radio in vehicles, puts HD a distant third in the war for the dashboard.
Even more damning, the uptake of HD in portable receivers is abysmal; iBiquity had to find some no-name electronics maker to make its own first portable device, and the only other current route to adoption is through the Zune. Most notably, when Apple rolled out its iPod Nano shortly afterward, it included analog radio functionality. To put it mildly, consumer electronics manufacturers are not exactly rushing to embrace HD Radio.
It’s almost like this power hike is HD Radio’s last technical gasp. Will listeners trade off analog listenability for questionable HD improvement? Either way, the consequences could be dire.