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News Archive: October 2007

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10/22/07 - Growing Resistance to HD Radio [link to this story]

After feeling like I've been shouting into the wind alone for so long about this, it's great to see others taking a critical perspective on HD's fundamental flaws. Check the following blogs for lots of information about this tainted technology, especially since these folks are also doing an excellent job aggregating news coverage of the issue:

Is HD Radio a Farce? - A good collection of information on what's happening both within the radio industry and among consumers, who, by and large, seem to be holding their noses once they get a whiff of those "secret stations between frequencies."

HD Radio on the Medium Wave (AM) Band - An excellent, if somewhat disorganized, collection of coverage about the increasing problems with AM-HD interference.

Stop IBOC Now! - A coalition of broadcast engineers who are opposed to the deployment of a "new and improved" technology which may, in effect, destroy at least one of the broadcast bands. There's been rumblings of dissatisfaction within the broadcast industry for a long time now about the prospects of HD Radio, but this is the first quasi-organized campaign of people who intimately understand the technology and are well-aware of its shortfalls.

In related news, the "HD Radio Alliance" has committed to spending another $230 million to market the technology to the public. This brings the running-total of marketing expenditure for HD to $680 million. Note that this is not a direct cash outlay - the Alliance (some of whom have already turned off their digital transmitters) is counting airtime that they'll use to play pro-HD spots as part of their expenditures.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Digital Radio Co-ordinating group, a large part of which includes the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, has issued a report recommending that Canadian stations not adopt the FM-HD protocol. (Many Canadian stations have already gone digital with an alternate system). According to the DRCG,

Based on the evidence currently in hand, the DRCG considers that it would be risky for Canadian broadcasters to proceed at this time with an unrestricted roll-out of HD Radio services in the FM band, in the manner implemented in the US. There is no ground-swell of radio listener interest in this technology so far and the lack of inexpensive receivers, as well as unique new programming services, continues to make it difficult to market HD Radio to the public in the US.

The report also takes special note of iBiquity's proprietary control over the HD standard: "iBiquity remains a 'gate-keeper' with respect to who may produce products bearing the 'HD Radio' label, as well as with respect to any future enhancements to the system. Time will tell whether this departure from the norm with respect to broadcasting standards will make it more complicated for regulators in different countries to adopt HD Radio as a digital standard, voluntary or otherwise."

10/13/07 - AM Broadcasters Back Away from HD Deployment [link to this story]

According to a leaked memorandum from ABC/Citadel's executive chief engineer, all AM stations in the company's stable have ceased broadcasting in digital at night, effective immediately. The memorandum does not give specifics, but follow-on reports cite interference between AM stations on adjacent channels as a major factor for the decision. Interestingly, some suggest Citadel executives knew such a problem might be in the offing, but they went ahead and turned on their digital signals at night anyway.

This is a major setback for the adoption of HD Radio, especially on the AM dial, and Citadel is the first large broadcast conglomerate to back away from full deployment of the HD broadcast technology. Although the company's gone out of its way not to characterize its move an indictment of iBiquity's proprietary digital broadcast standard, the problems with AM HD broadcast interference are well-known and -documented.

Apparently, since the FCC's authorization of nighttime AM-HD broadcasts earlier this year, the number of complaints about interference between stations has risen dramatically, and affects all classes of AM stations - from the 50-kilowatt "clear channel" blowtorches to the smallest operations.

Because the interference potential of HD Radio signals (and especially AM-HD signals) is a fundamental flaw of the technology itself, it's hard to see how a "workaround" might be produced to fix this problem, outside of going back to the drawing board and redesigning the entire HD broadcast protocol to not be as bandwidth-hungry as it is. HD-capable AM stations have already squeezed the bandwidth of their analog signals in order to accommodate the HD sidebands, even beyond the point of fundamentally degrading analog audio quality. Since a wholesale redesign of the AM-HD protocol is highly unlikely, perhaps AM stations should consider HD alternatives instead? Unfortunately, the FCC does not seem predisposed to consider this.

As radio's technology of the future, HD could very well be a waste of time: listener knowledge about and adoption of new HD-capable receivers is abysmal (more people listen to Democracy Now! every week than listen to a digital radio broadcast); the price and quality of said receivers is mostly-abysmal; and even broadcasters are coming around enough to openly admit that AM-HD is an afterthought - radio's digital future will almost entirely exist on the FM band. This is a major factor, I believe, as to why the NAB and its member-stations are pushing so hard for the FCC to freely give FM translators to AM stations.

In a nutshell, HD Radio is far from dead, but it would appear that, in some respects, the writing is already on the wall.

10/7/07 - Back Door to AM Station/FM Translator Incest Wide Open [link to this story]

At last month's NAB Radio Show, a representative of the Audio Services Division of the FCC's Media Bureau disclosed that, even though the agency hasn't yet taken action on a proposed rulemaking that would allow AM radio stations to utilize FM translators to supplement their coverage areas (a terrible idea, for several reasons), FCC staff are already implementing this "policy."

How is this possible? The unnamed staffer revealed that all AM broadcasters must do is apply for special temporary authority to run FM translator stations, and, after cursory review, the FCC will let them go ahead and invade the FM dial.

Note that this revelation took place at a broadcast-industry conference; the only reason we know the back-door approval of the use of FM translators by AM stations is already taking place is because a lawyer for the broadcast industry blogged about it. The formal proposal for rulemaking on this particular issue hasn't even been officially published yet, so there's no mechanism by which the public can make their opinions known on the matter.

Ironically, this disclosure came just about a week before the Government Accountability Office published a report accusing the FCC of not treating all stakeholders in communications policy debates equally. According to the Los Angeles Times, "FCC officials tipped [industry stakeholders] off to confidential information about when regulators planned to vote on important issues - a clear violation of agency rules that provided an unfair lobbying advantage....Other interested parties - generally consumer and public-interest groups - did not get such favorable treatment, the report said."

Given these developments, it will be interesting to see whether the FCC actually goes through the motions of "thoughtfully" evaluating this expansion of FM translator-station usage before rubber-stamping it; unfortunately, it appears the agency's engaged in the tried-and-true method of creating "facts on the ground" to justify a policy it's already informally implemented. This particular instance is just one more sad example of how communications policy gets made in D.C.: favor industry incumbents, and f*ck the public interest.