I smell history repeating itself.
Not 10 years ago, National Public Radio acted as an important ally – and a foil – for a concerted attempt by commercial broadcasters to quash LPFM stations before birth. A lot’s changed since then (for example, NPR only halfheartedly opposes LPFM expansion now), but there’s still a ways to go before that service reaches its full potential.
The historical lesson learned is: if it weren’t for NPR’s anti-LPFM stance at the time, which provided the anti-LPFM campaign with a semblance of technical “impartiality” and brought important “liberal” cachet to the legislative fight, LPFM would be an even stronger service today.
NPR plays the same role in the evolution of U.S. digital radio. While the regulatory record does show that NPR has never been completely comfortable with HD Radio as the U.S. digital technology-of-choice, it has yet played a significant role in the HD innovation space. In some respects, since 1999 – when the FCC first began deliberation of U.S. radio’s digital future – NPR has moved from a position of skepticism and suspicion about the HD Radio protocol to one of reluctant acceptance and support.
Due to decisions made years ago – the most important that it was not politically feasible to stand up against iBiquity’s HD-adoption steamroller – NPR has become an HD broadcast constituency with policy-attributes similar to the ones it enjoyed during initial LPFM rulemaking.
HD Radio’s proprietor, the iBiquity Corporation, has asked the FCC to allow FM-HD sidebands to be increased by ten times their currently-allowed level. Although the record is clear that, since the hybrid (analog/digital) HD Radio signal uses more spectrum than its analog equivalent, simply deploying HD Radio causes interference by design.
iBiquity is claiming the power increase is necessary to survive “listenability” problems with current HD broadcasts. Critics of the proposal contend that such a move will exacerbate the growing problem of HD-initiated interference.
Enter NPR. For the last six months, it has been conducting an exhaustive study of iBiquity’s power-hike proposal. While the results are not yet formally known, speculation has been rife in the trade press that NPR would not support the maximum increase requested by iBiquity; instead, it would seek to find a “compromise” position that would balance the loss of listeners due to increased FM-HD interference with the benefits of a more robust digital signal.
A leaked memorandum from NPR Labs provides public radio’s stance on the issue. This exparte filing made on October 7th by NPR seems to back up the veracity of the memo, written by NPR Labs’ Executive Director Mike Starling, the salient points of which are quoted below.
[W]e proposed that the FCC approve an interim period of symmetrical HD power with a blanket 6dB (4x) HD power increase for all FM HD stations — commercial and noncommercial. This is four times the current power level of 1%. … Specifically: we recommended (1) expedited deployment of alternative HD power increase solutions including asymmetrical power, (2) expedited deployment of reading service digital transition support, and (3) provisions to remediate harmful interference that may follow a closely spaced adjacent station’s power increase.
The HD High Power issue involves tradeoffs in serving the public, as is the case with our analog AM and FM Stereo services. We did not expect to find a perfect “win-win” scenario and our research did not disappoint us. … 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.
In the last few weeks we have been in communication with iBiquity about our compromise approach based on these findings, and they have been responsive, publicly accepting some of our proposals in principle. We will continue to work toward an agreement that we can support in good conscience.
Although iBiquity (and its broadcaster-investors) is still lobbying hard for the full (10x) power boost, it is likely the FCC will view NPR’s research as a politically-acceptable compromise. The process of framing the policy debate in that fashion has already started.
What is most frustrating is that politics are still driving policy, instead of reasonable, empirical debate. If the latter were the case, NPR would be in a very strong position to change the course of digital radio in the U.S. Unfortunately, it lacks the political will and fiscal independence to do so.
Although it has happened before, the compromise of spectral integrity regarding existing broadcast services should not be allowed here – the stakes are too high, as NPR’s own internal discourse clearly shows. Unfortunately, the major players in this debate define “compromise” differently than those of us outside the Beltway, whether we be broadcasters or the listening public.
I smell history repeating itself.