News Archive: August 2008
8/31/08 - Comments Filed in Support of DRM Broadcasting [link to this story]
Two notables in spectrum policy, Bennett Kobb and Don Messer, recently filed comments in the FCC's inquiry into the potential expansion of the FM band. While not directly related to the DoD testing of Digital Radio Mondiale in Alaska, the comments make a strong case for considering the 26 MHz band be a perfect space for utilizing DRM to provide a new class of local radio stations.
The comments, while brief, are very specific about the benefits of extending DRM to uses other than those currently considered in the ongoing testing. While it's not a formal proposal for rulemaking, it's an interesting seed planted in this ongoing policy story.
Benn Kobb and Don Messer know of what they speak: Kobb wrote the Wireless Spectrum Finder, the definitive guide to the classification and use of spectrum. Messer is an engineer who "chaired the Technical Committee of the DRM Consortium during 2000-2007 and was the initiator and a principal author of the DRM Broadcaster's User Manual. He was until recently the Chief, Spectrum Division, at the Voice of America, and was also chairman of the National Radio Systems Committee's evaluation and standardization groups for what is now HD Radio." That last little credential is particularly interesting.
8/29/08 - Raising FM-HD Power Levels Will Cause Increased Interference [link to this story]
And not just to adjacent stations - iBiquity's proposed 10-fold power hike for FM digital sidebands will cause what one commentator has called "honkin' interference" to an HD parent station's analog signal. Although the suspicions of just what increasing the signal strength of FM-HD sidebands would do to analog FM radio coverage have been well-discussed in the engineering community for nine months now, the new report from NPR Labs confirms the worst.
The "monumental 18-month study," involving extensive laboratory and field-testing of increased FM-HD sideband power finds that increased digital interference is simply unavoidable. While the tests do show that increasing FM-HD sideband power by a factor of 10 will make digital service coverage equivalent to (or, in some cases, slightly exceed) the coverage of a station's analog signal, the modification comes at a price:
In addition, "Improvements in IBOC DAB receivers and antennas are not currently expected to be a significant remedy for the shortfall in indoor and portable reception. Other techniques, likely transmission-based, will be needed to improve service." Does this mean HD-enabled stations will be permitted to increase their analog power levels to compensate? Talk about making a congested band even worse....
In summary, "Unqualified 10% IBOC [FM] transmission power is predicted to cause substantial interference to analog reception of a significant number of first-and second-adjacent channel stations," in addition to the aforementioned analog/digital host-station cross-talk problems.
Interestingly, these tests were not conducted under the auspices of the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC) - a broadcast standard-setting body which has been intimately involved in HD Radio protocol development every step along the way - except for this one. NRSC members are publicly questioning the integrity of the power-hike recommendation, and urge more research to be done before the FCC moves on this idea.
On top of all of this, there are increasing reports of trouble involving HD-reception in vehicles, and serious questions as to whether the FCC has the jurisdiction to force receiver manufacturers to incorporate HD reception technology into newer radios. (consumer adoption trends place satellite and wi-fi-enabled Internet radio receivers well-ahead of HD).
According to the FCC's own figures, about 1,750 stations are now broadcasting in some form of HD technology - that's just about 10% of all licensed stations in the nation. Will the agency destroy the village to save it?
8/22/08 - Post-Facto Piracy: Not So Bad [link to this story]
But the really interesting cases I found involved stations who were licensed, let them lapse, and then just kept running as if nothing was amiss.
The first involves the Christian Family Network in Battle Creek, MI. Until just last month, CFN ran an AM station, WOLY. The station first went on the air in 1963. Unfortunately, the organization let its license lapse in October of 2004.
For nearly two years, Christian Family Network continued to run WOLY without any license at all. In 2007, the FCC contacted the station to remind them that, um, they're pirates now. CFN filed an application for Special Temporary Authority to continue broadcasting, but never received acknowledgement from the FCC, and never got around to re-filing for that all-important actual license.
In July, the FCC finally fined Christian Family Network $10,000 - for effectively running a full-power AM unlicensed radio station for four straight years. In an ironic argument, CFN says it wasn't able to file for a new license to cover WOLY-AM because it didn't have a computer. Nice try: the FCC still accepts forms via papyrus - you know, the stuff the Bible was written on. Chances are, you've got some of that laying around your offices, probably with your own letterhead pre-printed on them.
Secondly, CFN pleaded poverty - not because it's actually poor, but because it fears that the FCC's $10,000 penalty may jeopardize "assets worth more than $1,000,000" currently held by the organization. No surprise: appeal denied.
Secondly, there's the case of A-O Broadcasting Corporation. A-O used to hold the rights to KMTN-FM in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. At the end of 2002, KMTN's license also lapsed, and A-O did not renew. Yet, in April of 2004, KMTN magically returned to the airwaves, sans license.
The station stayed on the air for nearly a month, navigating a warren of correspondence with the FCC until finally agreeing to silence its rogue signal. In late April of this year, the Enforcement Bureau issued a $10,000 Notice of Apparent Liability to A-O Broadcasting for effectively running a pirate radio station.
Last month, however, the FCC cancelled A-O Broadcasting's pirate penalty. Why? Inability to pay - this is a common statutory consideration the FCC must make when considering the range of reprimand for offenders of its rules, but A-O Broadcasting finds itself in dire straits precisely due to a previous run-in with the FCC.
Back in 2004, KMTN was caught running a very dangerous broadcast operation - so dangerous that anyone straying too close to its transmission tower risked being exposed to more than three times the RF radiation limits set by law. And that was with the station operating at less than its half of its licensed power of 100,000 watts. This transgression cost A-O Broadcasting a steep $28,000 fine.
Unable to pay the previous penalty, A-O Broadcasting pleaded poverty this time around. The FCC bought it.
What is wrong with these situations? In both cases, operators of these pirate stations previously held licenses - they were well-aware of the rules and what it took to keep their stations within the bounds of legality. Christian Family Network simply disregarded the rules for several years running, and in light of that their penalty smacks of a slap on the wrist.
In the case of A-O Broadcasting, isn't there something a bit strange about the FCC repealing a penalty because the party at hand already has such a bad record? Aren't those the types of entities that the rules are precisely designed to stick it to?
Again, compared to your garden-variety free radio station, these two violators went far beyond the pale - yet their penalties do not reflect the egregiousness of their actions. Just more evidence that corporate piracy still pays.
8/18/08 - FCC Agents Illegally Impersonate Real Cops [link to this story]
This is a first, as far as I know. The FCC's tried to bluff their way into busts in the past, but not past actual cops.
In June, FCC Enforcement Bureau field agents made a run into Mount Carmel, Tennessee, to investigate unauthorized jamming of a police radio channel in the area (the problem had been going on for months before the FCC got around to sniffing around).
While in town, the agents ran into Mount Carmel and Church Hill police officers not once, but twice, on traffic stops. In both instances, the FCC folks told the local cops that they were part of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Meth Task Force. They had no credentials to back up their claim, and that made the cops suspicious.
Later, after the truth came out, Church Hill Police drafted - but did not issue - arrest warrants for the two FCC agents for impersonating a law enforcement officer. In every state, impersonating a cop is a crime - in many states, it's a felony (not so in Tennessee, lucky for the FCC).
Quoting Mount Carmel Police Chief Jeff Jackson, "A novel idea would have been to tell the truth — 'Yeah we’re FCC employees and we’re investigating radio complaints.' Or, at the very least there’s hundreds of lies they could have told my officers. They happened to pick the one lie that there’s a crime in the books against."
Fortunately for these rogue field agents, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation intervened and asked for no prosecution - although it is not happy that its good name was sullied by a couple of nimrods.
Chances are, these rogue agents either came from the Enforcement Bureau's New Orleans or Kansas City field office. I'm thinking the former because the Tennessee cops remarked that the FCC folks were driving an SUV with Alabama license plates.
Just a friendly reminder, folks: FCC field agents are not police. They have no powers of arrest; they carry no weapons; and they cannot coerce anyone into doing anything without the assistance of real police officers. In most cases, these are Federal Marshals, but it's not unheard of for local cops to lend the FCC a hand, especially in high-pirate areas like south Florida.
Let's just hope this is a case of a few bad apples, and not some sort of new policy made out of desperation for the FCC's relatively flaccid field muscle. Reprimands, at the very least, are most definitely in order here. If I were one of the aggrieved in Tennessee, I'd file a complaint with the FCC's Inspector General to make sure some justice actually gets served.
8/13/08 - Translator-Mongers and AM Stations Eye Expanded FM Band [link to this story]
Two suspicious proposals to expand the FM spectrum have surfaced at the FCC. While on its face the idea seems promising, the devil, as always, is in the details.
The first proposal was filed in late July by the Educational Media Foundation - parent company of the K-LOVE and AIR-1 Christian music radio networks, which can already be heard on more than 150 full-power, low-power, and FM translator stations.
A second, new group, called the "Broadcast Maximization Committee," which represents the interests of AM broadcasters, followed up with its own proposal within days of EMF's filing. It is difficult to believe the timing of the filings were coincidental.
EMF and the BMC both assert that when the digital television transition is complete next February, the spectrum currently reserved for analog TV channels 5 and 6 - which is immediately adjacent to the existing FM broadcast dial - should be re-appropriated to expand the FM dial to accommodate new users.
The kicker is who those new users would be. In its proposal, EMF tacitly supports the reservation of some of this new spectrum for LPFM stations, but only as a ruse to advance its main agenda, which is to make sure most of it goes to FM translators. Citing the "embarrassment of riches" seen in 2003, when tens of thousands of applications for FM translators were filed (many of them arguably fraudulently), EMF implicitly suggests there is more demand for translators than for true, live-and-local LPFM stations. The truth is that the proliferation of FM translators has already detrimentally affected any future expansion of the LPFM service.
The Broadcast Maximization Committee, on the other hand, represents incumbent broadcasters who have long had their eye on the FM dial. Two years ago, the National Association of Broadcasters initiated a proceeding with the FCC, requesting that the agency assess the state of AM broadcasting. The endgame proposed a bounty of up to as many as five FM translators per AM station. AM broadcasters cite the degrading quality of the AM dial, due to interference issues (some of which they themselves have caused), as the rationale for giving these beleaguered incumbents new spectrum on an already-overcrowded FM dial.
The BMC's plan is essentially an expansion of the NAB's original scheme. Only eight of the 100 proposed FM channels would be reserved for LPFM expansion; another eight would be reserved for full-power, noncommercial educational stations. The rest would be employed to potentially liquidate the AM dial: existing AM broadcasters would move to full-power FM stations in the expanded band; the AM dial itself could then be possibly repurposed.
The irony in all of this is that both proposals use the guise of LPFM - something neither constituency has looked favorably upon in the past - as cover for their own greed. It's doubly-ironic for the fact that during the initial LPFM rulemaking in 1999 the FCC considered and rejected the notion of appropriating analog TV channels 5 and 6 to expand the FM band.
It's anyone's guess as to whether or not the FCC will seriously entertain these proposals. It would be a shame if it did, at least in their current forms.
8/9/08 - LPFM: Movement in Congress? [link to this story]
It appears that the U.S. Senate may be moving toward a floor vote on the Local Community Radio Act. This bill originally began under the auspices of undoing the Congressional fiat in 2001 which severely restricted the promulgation of new low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations. By imposing draconian channel-spacing regulations on the new service, LPFM stations were precluded from being sited in areas of the nation in which 80% of the population lives.
The Local Community Radio Act has been the focus of a seven-year campaign to right this wrong. Most importantly, it would relax channel-spacing rules for LPFM stations (allowing them to be placed in more urban areas) and give LPFM stations a semblance of parity with regard to other classes of FM station. This would make LPFMs less susceptible to being bumped off the air by a larger station looking to move or otherwise modify its own transmission infrastructure.
In the House of Representatives, the Local Community Radio Act is currently bottled up in committee, though it does have 96 cosponsors; in the Senate; the bill was approved by the Commerce Committee in March and has been placed on the Senate's calendar for a full floor-vote, which may occur sometime this fall. In the Senate, the bill currently sports 10 cosponsors.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the Senate's version of the Local Community Radio Act contains two "poison pills" which would greatly diminish the future expansion of the LPFM service. The first would exempt the entire state of New Jersey from any LPFM expansion; the state's Senators are very sensitive to lobbying from New Jersey's commercial broadcast industry.
Given the state's geographic location (essentially wedged between two metropolitan areas - New York to the east and Philadelphia to the west), there are very few open channels for broadcast radio stations in New Jersey, and the state's incumbent broadcasters do not want new competition in an already-congested market.
The second poison pill, however, may very well be the deal-breaker for any LPFM expansion. In 2000/2001, when Congress passed the "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act," it inserted what I like to call a "Rosa Parks provision" which effectively banned any prior pirate broadcaster from owning or governing the operation of an LPFM station. In essence, this provision wholly marginalized the very people who committed electronic civil disobedience in order to make LPFM a reality.
The Senate's version of the Local Community Radio Act expands this existing injustice:
This is clearly an overbroad prohibition. Whereas the FCC first offered amnesty to pirate operators, then only to have that olive branch snatched from its hands by the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, this version of the Local Community Radio act would stigmatize a much larger potential group of radio activists. What if you never ran a pirate station, but donated money to one, or attended a station fund-raiser? What if you helped make flyers to publicize a pirate station? Does this constitute unlicensed operation "in any manner"?
The original "Rosa Parks provision" of the Local Community Radio Act was challenged in court - a challenge which failed, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the cast. Further punishing those who risked something in order to make LPFM a reality re-opens the question of whether such a banishment is even Constitutional; many FCC licensees have been convicted of crimes much worse than unlicensed broadcasting, and they have never been banished a priori from participation in a broadcast service.
Fortunately, only the Senate version of the Local Community Radio Act contains these provisions at the moment. However, if the Senate moves first on the bill, the House may follow suit by harmonizing its version's language with what the Senate's already done. Either that, or the discrepancies between the two versions of the bill will be fleshed out in conference committee - behind closed doors, with no public input. That is, if the House even moves on the bill before the session ends.
If that doesn't happen, the entire lobbying process for the Local Community Radio Act will be forced to start from scratch next year. Given the Senate's modifications, I'd rather see this particular effort die than become law; while it would most definitely expand the reach of the LPFM service, it does so at the cost of an entire state and an entire class of activists, without whom this entire debate wouldn't even be possible.
8/4/08 - Digital Radio Mondiale Tests Underway in Alaska [link to this story]
According to my pal Bennett Kobb, limited tests of the DRM broadcast protocol are now taking place on a station in Alaska specifically licensed for the research. It is important to note, however, that the tests do not involve the broadcast bands - although Digital Radio Mondiale has been certified to work on them all.
Instead, the ultimate hope of these DRM tests is to assess the protocol's performance in the 26 MHz segment of the spectrum. This falls between frequencies designated for radio astronomy and maritime mobile use - and, according to the experiment's proponents, could be utilized to provide "hundreds" of new, low-power community-based broadcasting stations across the country.
It is a daring aspiration: instead of fighting for crumbs on the already-congested traditional broadcast bands, or lobbying for a wholesale replacement of the flawed HD Radio technology, U.S. DRM proponents would like to see this digital broadcast service be implemented as a wholly new program.
The license for WE2XRH was granted by the FCC in July, for limited testing in some shortwave bands; the company running the tests, Digital Aurora Radio Technologies, hopes this will be a step toward expanding DRM's use in other spectrum. It claims that with just 10 to 20 kilohertz in bandwidth, DRM can provide "FM-like" quality to the entire state of Alaska on up to four separate channels of programming. Successful tests of DRM in the 26 MHz band have already been conducted in India.
What is notable about this experiment is the duration and at least one of its affiliates. WE2XRH (click here and type in the station's call letters for all technical notes and FCC activity to-date on the station) hopes to be operational for up to two years. The Department of Defense is also heavily involved in the tests, reportedly curious as to the propagation and throughput-capacity capabilities of Digital Radio Mondiale for battlefield purposes.
I'm sure having the DoD on board helped the FCC to expedite the experimental license; I sincerely hope its influence does not hijack the good intentions of those who've done so much to introduce DRM to our shores.