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.