Skids Greased for Further FM-HD Experimentation

The FCC’s put a proposal by iBiquity, NPR, and NAB out for public comment that would allow FM-HD broadcasters more flexibility to increase the power levels of their digital sidebands independently. Called asymmetrical transmission, this flexibility conceivably allows more HD-enabled stations to pump up the power of their digital signals to make them reliably receivable in a station’s primary coverage area.
All signs are that the comment/reply comment rigmarole in this instance is a formality. As at least one industry lawyer has noted, the fact that the FCC’s scheduled the comment period for a short three weeks before Christmas – and a week for reply-comments to be filed between Christmas and the new year – means there is little likelihood that a robust record of public debate will be assembled over this latest wrinkle in the HD Radio saga.
This is a shame, because there’s (still) no consensus among broadcasters about the net benefits and detriments of HD Radio. Nearly ten years of operation suggest little benefit, and while digital signal-related interference has occurred it has not been widespread enough to materially disrupt the industry. Boosting the power of FM-HD sidebands increases this risk: of course, proponents say there’s little potential for harm, while the staunchest critics are quick to pounce.
The ongoing problems are manifold. As with the entire process of HD Radio’s development and proliferation, there’s been no independent analysis done of this tweak to the technology, which means the only data on which the FCC will base its decision comes from the technology’s proprietors, who have not been averse to playing fast and loose with the science of digital broadcasting over the years. (The FCC gave up its scientific independence a long time ago.)
This is also but the first in two techniques proffered to re-engineer a more robust FM-HD signal. The second “improvement,” the use of single-frequency booster networks, will eventually allow FM-HD broadcasters to build entirely new digital-only booster stations to increase reception quality. iBiquity and the NAB are well on their way building the case to convince the FCC to have their way on this as well.
There are no magic bullets for a digital broadcast technology which is flawed by design.