When TV broadcasters were given access to new spectrum in order to establish digital channels late in the last decade, the grants were contingent on broadcasters using the spectrum-windfall in ways that served the public interest. This might include things like opening up a slice of each DTV channel to public access, or obligating DTV stations to produce “public-interest” programming with news, educational, or other civic-minded value.

The problem is that while the FCC’s been talking about public-interest obligations for DTV broadcasters for 12 years now, it hasn’t adopted any explicit rule defining what those obligations are, and how stations must comply with them. Meanwhile, DTV stations are going on the air and the spectrum they use – touted as having the capacity to offer as many as six different channels – is being utilized however broadcasters see fit, and this often has nothing to do with providing more free over-the-air content.

In response to a question about digital broadcasting proffered by the Senate Commerce Committee on February first, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein made an interesting comment about the status of the agency’s rulemaking on the adoption of digital radio. The item appeared on the FCC’s monthly meeting agenda at least once last year but was pulled from consideration at the last minute. Adelstein seems to suggest this is because there’s haggling over what AM/FM broadcasters will do with the additional spectrum they get when they deploy the “HD Radio” system:

Right now before us is an item pending where we’re trying…just to ask the question, should we apply any additional public interest obligations to broadcasters as they get additional spectrum to broadcast on the radio….Is there any public interest obligations to go with that? And so far, we don’t have a majority to support…even asking the question, should we do a rule?

It seems a bit backward to be asking for program-based public interest obligations from digital radio broadcasters, especially since the HD Radio technology itself has not yet been proven to accommodate more than two decent-sounding program streams on a single frequency, and some broadcasters may sacrifice multicasting capability for the ability to serve up non-audio content instead. Not to mention there is no analog cutoff-date like there is on the TV side of things, so there is no compelling reason for listeners to rush out and buy new digital receivers for $200+ each.

A good place for the FCC to start would be by refusing to exclusively endorse a sh*tty standard and demonstrating an openness to the exploration of alternatives.