Robert Struble Channels Lee DeForest (and Other HD Follies)

I never thought I’d consider Twitter a tool for journalistic use, but it looks like I’ve been proven wrong.
iBiquity’s President and CEO, Robert Struble, has taken to tweeting. In early September, he revealed he’d taken the train to Wall Street to float the notion of taking iBiquity public: “Good NYC trip. Wall St way more upbeat than recently. IPO pipeline better, but most think [stock market] rally was too fast.”
Other than a mention-in-passing in the Washington Post more than four years ago (which coincidentally predicted iBiquity would need an IPO by 2009 to keep HD Radio viable), and less than a handful of dismissive side-comments on a couple of inside-baseball-type blogs, the notion of this process going forward (or, perhaps more importantly, gaining traction) is not being closely followed.
Here’s where the history lesson comes in. In the early 20th century, Lee DeForest, inventor of the “audion” tube (which amplified telephone signals and allowed the broadcast of voice and music over the early airwaves), spent a portion of his early career engaged with unscrupulous businessmen in the practice of “pumping and dumping” stock in radio companies featuring his invention.
Partly because DeForest wasn’t exactly sure how his invention worked, and partly because the regulatory paradigm of broadcasting hadn’t been firmly established yet, many of his ventures failed, and DeForest spent much of his life engaged in patent lawsuits (although he was acquitted of stock fraud, his business partners weren’t).
One might say the same about Bob Struble and iBiquity. Although HD Radio is “workable,” it doesn’t work well, and even broadcasters don’t fully understand how to implement the technology (see below). Given the wobbly future of the HD Radio protocol, it is not far-fetched to see a historical parallel between Struble and DeForest.
Struble’s also getting around; first to the Dominican Republic, where he “brief[ed] their President on HD Radio technology. Really.”; then, to Japan, ostensibly hustling hard (even though Japan has reportedly adopted a digital broadcast protocol which is cross-compatible with digital television, radio, and telephony), and has trips to China (where Digital Radio Mondiale is already deployed) and Switzerland in the works.
To top it off, Smilin’ Bob has nice words for Apple’s latest iPod Nano, which decided to forego HD Radio compatibility for analog FM technology (called the Radio Data System) which allows listeners to tag songs and “record” up to 15 minutes of broadcasting: “[T]he new nano has an (analog) fm with itunes tagging, first launched with apple for hd. analog/digital synergy”.
Say what? It’s true that RDS provides a small amount of digital information to be combined and broadcast with an analog FM signal. However, according to this PowerPoint presentation from NPR Labs (see the transmission-chain illustration on p. 9), RDS is not inherently compatible with HD Radio – it is generated as part of the analog FM signal and then combined with HD’s digital sidebands. Thus, there is no “synergy” in the technical sense of the word between the use of RDS and HD Radio’s own (limited) capabilities.
Meanwhile, although HD Radio technology has been deployed in the real world for more than seven years, just now has iBiquity, in conjunction with the National Radio Systems Committee, developed the metrics by which HD-enabled FM stations can make sure they’re operating the protocol properly.
According to a member of the NRSC team which led this project, “The development of transmission signal quality metrics for FM IBOC signals will give broadcasters confidence that their HD Radio transmission system is truly delivering a high-quality signal to their listeners. It is now possible to fully characterize the performance of the complete HD Radio transmitter facility [emphasis mine].”
Does this sound bass-ackwards to anyone else? Shouldn’t the performance of an HD Radio transmitter facility have been “fully characterize[d]” before the technology was released into the wild? There’s also no word on whether an AM-equivalent metric is in the offing – where HD interference concerns are actually better-documented.