ZoneCasting Technology and Costs Detailed

It first seemed to come out of nowhere: a Texas-based company announced last year that it had developed a system it calls "ZoneCasting," which would allow FM radio stations to subdivide their primary coverage area into specific locales using FM booster stations. Each "zone" would serve up geo-targeted advertising.
An initial proposal to the FCC from ZoneCasting’s proprietor, Geo-Broadcast Solutions, asking for a rule-change governing FM boosters (to allow them to originate programming) attracted hardly any comment from within the radio industry. Many broadcast engineers initially seemed skeptical that ZoneCasting could work in a real-world environment.
Things have changed significantly over the course of a year. Transmitter-manufacturer Harris (who developed the means to use FM boosters in sync) has signed onto the ZoneCasting system, and NPR Labs has endorsed it – so much so that it’s committed to further testing of the technology.
In an interview with Radio World in February, Geo-Broadcast’s CEO Peter Handy emphasized the advertising windfall its system might provide broadcasters. "FM radio stations will have more inventory to sell while delivering the same amount of non-commercial content," said Handy. "The potential for the overall radio industry is exceptional. Stations that implement the ZoneCasting system could grow their top line revenue by 20 percent or more per year."
Rich Redmond, Harris’ VP of strategy and product management, says ZoneCasting works by using "a combination of advanced technology for transmission of a signal and careful network design to ensure the desired area of coverage is achieved while at the same time mitigating any undesired interference to the primary station or others." Redmond also noted that not all booster-stations in a ZoneCasting setup will broadcast full-time: some "only operate during the times of local content insertion to cover a certain area with the local content, and then turn off once that content is completed."
NPR Labs’ senior technologist John Kean says they’re bringing their extensive experience in signal propagation-modeling to the table, as well as conducting listener experiments to investigate just how much potential interference there might be between a full-power FM station’s primary transmitter and its fleet of booster-nodes.
These won’t be tiny stations, though: Kean expects boosters employed for ZoneCasting to operate at an effective radiated power between 500 to 5000 watts. Booster antennas may be "highly directive," and will be sited "typically only 25 to 40 meters above ground, to control the coverage of each node and avoid spilling signal across distant nodes or into areas to be served by the primary transmitter." Spacing between nodes "may range from one to five kilometers, depending on terrain and building density," and each zone within a station’s subdivided coverage area "may require from five to 20 nodes" to provide adequate service.
GBS’ attorney, Aaron Shainis, hopes that the FCC will convene a rulemaking on modifying FM booster rules to allow them to originate programming "sometime during the first half of 2013."
Ultimately, the big questions remaining to be resolved revolve around radio-frequency physics and economics – with the money-angle perhaps being the deciding factor. Provided that the ZoneCasting system can be proven to work reliably in a variety of terrain and networked configurations, it’s going to come down to return-on-investment.
Harris’ Redmond estimates that it would cost between $39,000 to $55,000 to set up each booster-node. Considering that each "zone" in a ZoneCasting system will require between five and 20 nodes, that’s an estimated capital cost of $195,000 to $1.1 million per zone. Multiply that figure-range for each additional zone that a broadcaster may want to create.
These costs do not include "an upfront licensing fee that will vary by market size" which broadcasters will need to pay to use the ZoneCasting system, nor does it include residual costs to run each booster-node, such as tower rental, power, and the data-network necessary to program each node. It also doesn’t take into consideration the additional labor necessary to produce the commercial inventory that each zone will require.
The radio industry as a whole is suffering from a revenue-plateau, with little significant growth expected in the near future. Capital expenditures by broadcasters have been slashed in recent years. Subdividing a station’s coverage area in order to increase the amount of advertising it can offer feels like an attempt to squeeze every possible penny out of a market afflicted by malaise. But is the effort worth the expense, both from a financial perspective and with regard to spectrum-integrity?
The bottom line may very well be the bottom line – provided the FCC eventually allows the use of FM boosters to be transformed in a manner eerily similar to what has happened with FM translators over the last two decades.