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News Archive: January 2014

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1/30/14 - Free Radio Network (not quite) Resurrected [link to this story]

Recently stumbled across—a bare-bones bulletin board where some of the shortwave pirate enthusiasts that frequented the original Free Radio Network have re-congregated.

The story isn't completely clear, but it appears that the FRN's founders have given up the ghost, shutting down their server permanently. According to shortwave pirate-watcher extraordinaire Ragnar Daneskjold, "Unfortunately it looks like we lost the huge database of old logs, posts and information. That was a huge wealth of knowledge and history." Indeed it was...and simply shameful if true.

Registration of the original FRN domain expires on March 9—it'll be interesting to see who snags it next. Without the content that made it valuable, though, it's just six letters split in half by a period.

Long-time radio-related message boards have been dropping offline over the last year. Part of this is due to the migration of such discussions to sites like Facebook. While that be convenient, it also requires participating in a social network where your data exists at the whim (and primarily for the material enrichment) of Facebook; not necessarily a good trade. In shortwave pirate circles, the ever-important reception reports have migrated to real-time outlets like Twitter and Internet Relay Chat channels.

1/24/14 - Canada Considers Adopting HD Radio [link to this story]

iBiquity Digital Corporation's recent claim that HD Radio is on the way to becoming the North American digital radio standard actually has some merit. More than enough, in fact, that it's surprising that the company didn't announce how far along things are in Canada: as part of a wide-ranging proceeding on rules revisions to the radio sector, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is now soliciting formal comment on the notion of adopting HD Radio.

In 2006, the CRTC announced that it was prepared to reconsider its adoption of the Eureka 147 DAB standard as Canada's digital radio platform. Since then, broadcasters have abandoned it and the CRTC is phasing out DAB licenses.

In 2012, iBiquity made approaches to several broadcasters in Canada about becoming test-beds for HD technology. Three stations in the Toronto area accepted the call. CING-FM, an adult-contemporary station owned by Corus Entertainment—Canada's fourth-largest commercial broadcaster—has been the primary platform for technical tests, including datacasting experiments. The other two stations, CFMS-FM and CJSA-FM, are classified as "ethnic" stations, which basically means the majority of their programming isn't in English. Canadian Multicultural Radio, the owner of CJSA, announced just last week that it will soon roll out FM-HD multichannel programming in Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi.

On the policy-front, the CRTC already appears well-sold. In Paragraph 50 of its proceeding, the CRTC claims that HD technology uses no new spectrum, and could "even represent a way to address the issue of spectrum scarcity." The Commission is also very keen on FM-HD's multicast function. Program diversity in Canada is partially mandated by regulation—hence the potential for multilingual commercial stations—and the country's public and community broadcast sectors are quite robust. Thus there is a real potential to broaden the diversity of programming on the Canadian airwaves through HD, because the political and economic will to do so is in many respects already there.

But several important questions remain to be answered, including whether or not HD would be viable beyond Toronto, the availability of HD receivers in Canada, and how additional services like FM-HD subchannels might be licensed on their own merits (something that U.S. public interest advocates unsuccessfully lobbied for during the formative years of HD policymaking here). The CRTC also explicitly asks whether or not it should consider "other digital radio technologies for use in the FM or AM bands[.]" This is a direct nod to Digital Radio Mondiale—the only other platform that exists for digital AM/FM broadcasting.

Given the fact that the CRTC proposal actively encourages stations to experiment with HD Radio, the ball is already rolling for Canada to take the plunge. That said, there are some policy objectives that the CRTC would be wise to aim for.

Don't take our word for it. Although HD technology has been on the air in the U.S. for more than a decade, that doesn't mean American broadcasters or regulators fully comprehend its risks and rewards. The technical record on which the FCC made its decision to adopt HD Radio was laughable, cribbing heavily from industry-funded data and couched in marketplace platitudes. In the process, the FCC fundamentally redefined the meaning of channel and interference in order to accommodate the new digital signal, and set the bar for what constitutes an HD-related interference complaint so high that it's impossible for the average radio listener to file one.

The CRTC has the opportunity to conduct a thorough and impartial evaluation of the HD platform. Test it in a variety of station-conditions, in multiple modes, and with the active participation of radio listeners. When granting experimental licenses to stations, require them to provide the CRTC with an analysis of some real-world performance aspect of the HD system.

Not only will Canada then have a legitimate dataset on which to decide the next steps of its digital radio transition, but the results will also have real potential to move the needle on U.S. broadcasters' interest in HD; the lack of objective public information on the technology's true strengths and weaknesses has kept many on the fence.

If HD Radio is set to become Canada's favored digital radio technology primarily on the rationale that's it's in the U.S.' market orbit, why not help stimulate that market, too? That's downright neighborly.

Read the fine print. The largest drag on broadcaster-adoption of HD in the United States is the license terms iBiquity requires to use its system. The notion of paying an up-front license fee and residual, perpetual payments to broadcast digitally has gone over with the vast majority of U.S. broadcasters, as an engineer in Nebraska once put it, "like wind when someone cuts the cheese."

In the past, iBiquity has claimed that its licensing structure does not apply outside of the United States. Instead, any licensing fees are rolled into the cost of the transmission equipment—a much saner business model. No copy of iBiquity's international license agreement exists in the wild; thus it's incumbent upon the CRTC fully understand how any license arrangement applies to broadcasters, receiver manufacturers, and the potential to innovate in the HD space.

Do a comparative test of HD and DRM. Believe it or not, there's never been a head-to-head test between digital radio broadcast technologies. Back in the '90s, the United States tried to set one up between HD Radio and Eureka 147 DAB, but it fell apart as the parties bickered over test parameters. Brazil has conducted limited tests of both HD and Digital Radio Mondiale, but used DRM for AM and shortwave and HD for FM—not a true apples-to-apples comparison.

Although DRM is the relative newcomer and requires phasing out analog broadcasting completely, it actually fits on top of existing Canadian radio allocations, so interference is of no concern. Furthermore, DRM is an open standard, free of the intellectual-property straightjacket that dogs HD Radio. And while it is tempting to choose HD simply because that would create a "North American standard," doesn't the interest in DRM from emerging markets such as Brazil, India, Russia, and China warrant more than a little lip service?

The first cycle of comments on the CRTC's proposals are due on January 30, with reply-comments due on April 1. The proceeding's record is presently sparse, and it'll be interesting to see if there's a flood of submissions from interested parties on deadline-day. Relative to the FCC, the CRTC is a much more deliberative body, and the six questions that frame the process represent first steps toward a future that's far from predetermined.

1/17/14 - Preliminary AM Revitalization Comments Roundup [link to this story]

With the first round of public comment on the FCC's AM revitalization initiative due next week, it's not a bad time to sample the feedback that's come in so far: just about 65 comments in total.

There are some general points of consensus across most commenters. The strongest involves the increase of interference across the entire AM dial. Much of this comes from improperly-shielded consumer electronics, lighting fixtures, and power lines, which can wreak absolute havoc on AM reception in localized areas. The FCC has the authority to require that all such devices meet standards to reduce harmful emissions—but the huge influx of cheap sh*t from overseas is far, far more than the FCC can handle without a substantial increase in enforcement resources.

Another point of consensus is that the FCC should require AM radio receivers to work at a certain level of quality. Another side-effect of the influx of cheap electronic componentry means that the sensitivity and fidelity of modern AM receivers (especially in automobiles) is actually worse than they were, say, two decades ago. There is regulatory precedent for the FCC to consider and adopt minimum AM receiver-standards, but the power of the consumer electronics industry in D.C. will strongly resist any such notion.

Unsurprisingly, there is also strong support for the FCC to open a special filing window for AM broadcasters to acquire "supplemental" FM translators: groups ranging from the National Religious Broadcasters to the Prometheus Radio Project support the concept. But how many FM translators might be made available, and who should be first in line to apply? These questions will most likely constitute the majority of the dialogue as the proceeding continues.

However, not all broadcasters feel that giving FM translators to AM stations is a panacea. Curtis W. Flick thinks further abuse of the translator rules is likely; there is already "a track record of certain licensees neglecting their AM facility maintenance in favor of their FM outlet. Some AM stations have been off the air for extended periods...while blissfully providing FM programming to their translator in blatant defiance of FCC rules....Whether these translators are permanently locked to an AM license is irrelevant. There is no good way to do a bad thing."

Several commenters have suggested that the FCC expand the FM dial down to 76 MHz and use that spectrum to site any new FM translators for AM stations. Mark Heller thinks the AM dial should be expanded, too—from 1700 to 1790 KHz—to encourage investment in new AM stations.

Sentiments run strong against the adoption of the all-digital AM-HD mode. Commenters note HD Radio's penchant for causing interference to existing stations, its floundering in the receiver marketplace, and the "undue financial burden" that HD adoption would put on small AM broadcasters; Brian J. Henry notes that the cost of digital adoption "can in certain cases exceed the current market value of smaller market AM broadcast stations."

Although the Broadcast Warning Working Group suggests it is "time for an honest and rigorous revisiting of [HD] for AM," they are one of only a handful of commenters who advocate for the technology's abandonment. Brian and Karla Winnekins, the owners of WRDN-AM in Durand, Wisconsin, think the time is ripe to experiment with other digital broadcast technologies, such as Digital Radio Mondiale. Meanwhile, Frederick R. Vobbe thinks putting HD-AM and -FM on spectrum adjacent to the current FM dial may be the most expedient way to inject life into radio's digital malaise.

Out of all of the comments tendered so far, though, Nickolaus Leggett's initial filing is my favorite: ambitious and pragmatic rolled into one. On the one hand, Leggett—one of the founding petitioners of the LPFM service—would like to see the FCC look into establishing an LPAM station-class, and is preparing to petition the FCC to consider a local shortwave broadcast service. On the other hand, he would also like the FCC to grant existing AM stations greater regulatory flexibility to customize their transmission and antenna infrastructures, and suggests that the federal government might subsidize AM stations as communicators of last-resort by hardening them against natural and man-made disasters.

It is customary for the big dogs in these proceedings (the NAB, NPR, and a variety of broadcast conglomerates and trade associations) to file on the last day of a comment-window, and these are the comments that the FCC will weigh most favorably as it sets the agenda for any concrete AM revitalization projects. Those filings will also mark the start of what is hopefully a more feisty reply-comment period, which closes on February 18.

1/10/14 - HD Radio in 2014: More Baby Steps—Toward What? [link to this story]

As the year rolled over, a variety of news-bits came out about the state of HD Radio in the United States.

Moving On: HD Radio's now been around for a quarter-century. The initial development of the in-band, on-channel (IBOC) protocol that constitutes HD broadcasting first began as a science project under the auspices of Westinghouse in 1989. It's been a long, strange trip since then: overpromising, underdelivering, crash-development, and finally a "workable" protocol. This process has constituted a career for some people—one of whom is now tending greener pastures.

Mike Starling, the co-founder of NPR Labs, retired this month. Starling's contributions to the technology were instrumental—he helped convince National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support HD Radio before the technology was fully baked. Speaking to Current back in 1992, Starling clearly set out NPR's position: "Our support for [digital broadcasting] has really been focused on positioning public radio so that we can take advantage of it and participate in it. The only way to compete with those people [i.e., commercial broadcasters] is to become one of them."

In that respect, Starling's been a key innovator in the HD space: it was NPR Labs that pretty much singlehandedly developed the multicasting feature of FM-HD broadcasting, still considered to be the technology's primary attraction. The CPB's support of HD, through tens of millions of dollars of research awards and "digital conversion grants" to member-stations, provided iBiquity Digital Corporation with some much-needed assistance during the company's formative years. NPR's also done significant experimentation with other aspects of HD's functionality, such as surround-sound, the provision of services for the blind, and the all-digital AM-HD system.

HD Radio would not be where it is today without the political, economic, and scientific support of public broadcasters at critical moments throughout its technological and regulatory development. It'll be interesting to see if Starling's successor carries the torch. By and large, public broadcasting's support of HD has been increasingly muted in recent years as NPR Labs invested more time and energy into radio captioning, online streaming, and data visualization.

Fun With Numbers: iBiquity Digital had a presence at the Consumer Electronics Show, now wrapping up in Las Vegas. It opened the show with a spew of statistics that seemed impressive on first glance: HD Radio listening in automotives totaled some three billion hours in 2013, with a listening audience for FM-HD multicast channels now estimated to be four million every week; there's now some level of HD buy-in from every major automaker; and claims of inroads made toward HD becoming "a North American standard" for digital radio broadcasting. But upon further inspection, these claims deflate.

Three billion listening hours sounds impressive, until you consider that the average American (aged 12+) spends more than 14 hours per week listening to radio. With 242 million radio listeners in the United States; that works out to more than 176 billion hours of radio listening in a year. Of which HD Radio's share is 1.7%—and when you factor in HD listening outside of the car, the share does not budge from the single-digits.

Four million multicast listeners sounds impressive—again just 1.7% of the total U.S. radio listening audience. Further complicating matters, iBiquity includes those listening to multicast programming on analog FM translators; there's been an explosion of translators deployed as FM-HD simulcast-nodes over the last several years, which suggests that the majority of this listening actually occurs on radio's legacy analog platform.

Getting every major auto manufacturer to adopt HD Radio in some shape or form is a nice milestone, and the most symbolically relevant. It's 2014: after 12 years on the air, it's about time that every automaker includes it. The kicker is that not every one includes it as universally standard equipment—and without a foothold in the most popular makes and models, across all option levels, HD's position in the dashboard remains a marginal one.

With the growth of in-vehicle broadband connectivity far surpassing HD Radio uptake, iBiquity's play to focus almost exclusively on the automotive market is a significant gamble—but can it pay off? Vehicles now account more than 85% of HD Radio's receiver base, and the company expects to sell more than 5 million radios (most of them as part of car purchases) in 2014, bringing the total installed base to more than 22 million—or 3% of all radio receivers in the U.S.

Finally, the claim of HD Radio becoming a de facto standard for North America is sheer whoppery worth exploring in more detail. Mexico endorsed HD in 2011, but like the United States made broadcaster adoption voluntary. Since then, 36 stations—or about 3%—have adopted HD, reaching some 25% of all Mexican radio listeners. It's important to note here that reach does not equal listening: it just means HD signals are available for them to tune in.

In Canada, a lone FM station in Toronto has adopted HD, while a Canadian conglomerate is testing the datacast-function of FM-HD, mostly to provide continuity for drivers using it for traffic-navigation services along the Canadian-U.S. border. Canada's history with digital radio is a tortured one: the country first adopted, then abandoned, the European DAB standard. This sparked a brief affair with HD Radio back in the late '00s which effectively disintegrated in 2010. The previous position of Canadian broadcasters and regulators on HD Radio is one of passivity: better to wait and see how it fares in its home country. Will these baby steps change their mind? Apparently, it's fared well enough to potentially entice Canada into the fold.

Future Growth: There are three areas to watch for future HD advancement in 2014. The first is within the automobile. Although the technology's making slow but steady progress, the place of radio within the glass dashboard is a moving target. Every automaker has their own "infotainment" interface design, in which radio occupies no standard position. Emmis Communications is hoping to change that by developing a "companion" application to its NextRadio app, currently deployed on certain models of Sprint smartphones and available as a stand-alone download for Android devices. People are becoming increasingly used to navigating to an app to consume content; if NextRadio can be positioned as the de facto "radio" button across all glass dashboards, that will add a much-needed element of harmony and stability to radio's overall position there.

No smartphone is yet equipped with HD reception functionality, but any further growth of the NextRadio app in smartphones will only help it in the long run, should such technology become available. Sprint has since added the app to phones carried by its resellers such as Boost and Virgin. Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan says "consumer demand...will make other carriers want to do this," but that remains to be seen.

So far, some 100,000 people have downloaded NextRadio for their Android devices since it launched in August. For comparison, broadcast-stream aggregator TuneIn claims a listener base of 40 million, while pure-play Pandora claims more than 70 million regular users. Clearly, there's a lot of room for growth—and much like HD Radio itself, current growth is infinitesimal relative to other meaningful competitors. Emmis' Smulyan recently noted that he's having some trouble getting some broadcasters to pony up their part of the $15 million in free commercial time that the industry promised Sprint this year for enabling FM chips in smartphones. Smulyan plays this off as a logistical issue, but what does it say about the industry's capacity to entice the likes of AT&T or Verizon into the NextRadio family?

The only expected movement on the broadcaster-side will involve additional testing of the all-digital AM-HD system. The first round of public comments on the FCC's AM Revitalization Initiative are due later this month, and it will be interesting to see just whether or not HD proponents take the opportunity to use this initiative to advance a call for unleashing all-digital AM broadcasts.

As of today, just 44 comments have been filed in the proposal for rulemaking. None of them are from major constituents (who typically file on or very near the comment-deadline), but several independent broadcasters and engineers have mentioned the need to "revisit" radio's digital transition—including opening up the option to experiment with other systems, such as Digital Radio Mondiale.

As the future of digital radio broadcasting unfolds throughout 2014, it's important to be a realist about its prospects. Far from the unmitigated failure depicted by its harshest critics, the sum of its successes to date ain't exactly inspiring, either. Should make for an interesting year.