Digital Developments in Vegas

A couple of weeks ago, Radio World‘s Leslie Stimson contacted me for some thoughts on HD Radio as part of a "status report" the newspaper was working on. That turned out to be a 35-page "e-book" in which the "skeptics" and "critics" got three pages sandwiched between some "sponsored content" from iBiquity and a piece from the company’s director of broadcast sales singing the praises of the "HD Radio-On-Translator play."

While I’m glad that Radio World considers me a "responsible viewpoint" in the ongoing digital radio transition, it’s a bit unnerving to be tossed into the "haters" camp so nonchalantly. So here’s the entirety of what I wrote Stimson when she asked for comments:

“The fundamental detriments of the HD Radio system have not been meaningfully addressed in the years since it first went on the air. The system "works," but only to a certain degree, and not universally. No extended features of the HD system have any meaningful traction (in the HD space), and many of them (especially datacasting) at best replicate what newer, IP-based content delivery systems already offer as native to their design.

“Gear costs have certainly come down, but the system still has software-like licensing fees, which the majority of broadcasters refuse to accept on principle. HD’s proponents have admitted in the past that in hindsight this was a bad business decision, but yet they’ve kept at it—as if they would rather own all of nothing than a part of something big. More broadly, iBiquity’s insistence of protecting its intellectual property to such an extreme degree has hobbled innovation within the system, effectively constraining it to existing licensees. The first major innovator was NPR, ironically, and now that torch seems to have been passed to Emmis.

“Meanwhile, actual, functional improvements to HD, such as DigitalPower Radio’s receiver-improvement technology, are frozen out because HD is so locked down. Look in the comments of the AM Revitalization Initiative and see how many people suggested exploring Digital Radio Mondiale—the vast majority of them cited the open nature of the system more than anything else. Were iBiquity to abandon broadcaster-licensing fees, or cap them to some nominal one-time payment, it would see an immediate positive response within the industry. At this point, what is there to lose?

“The receiver marketplace for HD is mostly chimerical, especially relative to the other, newer technologies which now directly compete in the "radio" space. It is true that most people don’t buy radios anymore, but the fact that you really can’t even if you wanted to is not good. Automotive receiver uptake is a passive metric—people don’t buy cars for the radio, it’s just another piece of bling in the glass dashboard. Consumer Reports just panned HD in their latest automotive issue. The bottom line is, 17.5 million receivers doesn’t mean 17.5 million listeners, especially since that receiver market excludes all listening done outside of the car. Couple that with no HD penetration into mobile devices, and it’s not a pretty picture.

“I honestly think the radio industry should be having the difficult discussion about whether or not the HD system actually represents the natural end-state for digital broadcasting in the United States. If it is, then some fundamental revisions to the ground-rules governing the design and operation of the technology should be considered in order to make improvements and promote its uptake. But if it is not, then the sky’s the limit for radio’s digital future. I actually think such a discussion would be immensely healthy for the industry, as it might help reinvigorate radio’s sense of identity and cohesion, and serve to promote unity around commonly-held goals for its future.”

The first four paragraphs are really just basic information; the last one is where my head is at. Broadcaster support for HD is essential for the viability of radio’s digital transition, and one way to make that happen sooner rather than later is to make some major revisions to the technology’s functionality, both technically and economically, all of which are within the realm of the realistically possible.

More than 90,000 people are in Las Vegas for the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention, and there’s already been some notable digital radio news, such as a summary of all-digital AM test broadcast results to-date and the release of a dashboard-variant of the NextRadio app that integrates HD-related content (HD has yet to penetrate mobile devices). HD proponents may also be setting the groundwork to ask for another power increase to make FM-HD broadcasts more reliable.

While I don’t expect much vigorous debate over HD Radio in public at the NAB Show, what I’d give to be a fly on the wall in the suite-discussions. The real world is much more complicated, there’s a lot of ground between perfection and failure, and the truth about HD Radio lies somewhere in between. Breaking the unproductive us-versus-them dichotomy is the first step to confronting radio’s digital dilemma head-on.

Book Report, etc.

Two weeks left to spring break in the CUNY system and everyone’s struggling to maintain their sanity on the tail-end of what has been a grueling year. So a potpourri of sorts this week:

Radio’s Digital Dilemma. 75 copies of the hardcover have been sold through mid-March, which is way more than I had expected by this point. (You or your local library can order direct through Routledge and receive 20% off by using code JRK96 at checkout. Amazon’s Kindle version is similarly "cheaper.") Once 200 copies are sold, a sanely-priced paperback run will commence. Routledge gives 18 months to make this goal, which puts the drop-dead deadline for paperback release in June of 2015.

Last week, Routledge published a five-question interview with me about the book and where it came from. Long story short, the seeds for this project were planted well more than a decade ago, when I first became a refugee from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

I’ve also written a commentary related to the book for the European Journalism Observatory, a project of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. It emphasizes the primary cautionary tale: when ideology trumps science, bad things happen that have lasting effects on the health of a media system.

Workers Independent News v. FCC. Work continues to confront the FCC about its troublesome ruling on the validity of broadcast journalism. Multiple vectors are in play: the first is Congress, who has the power of the purse over the FCC and who may be able to persuade the agency to walk back their censorship of WIN with some targeted prodding. Members in both the House of Representatives and Senate are intrigued by this case and have agreed to sniff around.

If legislative entreaties fail, then it’s time to lawyer up. I’m in discussions with two folks who specialize in media and labor issues and are preliminarily interested in taking our case; the recommendation at this time is to let the Congressional inquiries play themselves out first, as those could completely obviate the need for a legal battle. That is, if the FCC is willing to listen to reason.

Reply Comments Filed in AM Revitalization Initiative

In addition to gearing up to scrap with the FCC over its definition of journalism, I found the time last week to file some Reply Comments in the agency’s AM Revitalization proceeding.

I kept my comments confined to the FCC’s suggestion that AM stations might begin to adopt the all-digital version of HD Radio. The whole thing (10 pages) is worth a read, but the high points are:

Big decisions about digital radio should be made in the FCC’s ongoing digital radio proceeding. This is a procedural argument that asserts the proper venue for advancing HD-related policy is not the AM revitalization docket. In other proceedings tangential to digital radio where the issue has been raised, the FCC’s deferred all discussions to the digital radio docket, and should maintain that precedent here.

HD Radio is in the throes of market malaise. In its Comments to the AM revitalization proceeding, iBiquity Digital Corporation asserts that the commercial potential of HD Radio is "well established," and cites adoptive figures to make its case. These figures are inflationary at best, and since the agency made marketplace adoption the primary mechanism by which radio’s digital transition would evolve, the actual story is not that rosy.

The bottom line is you can’t make good policy on bad data, and I would argue that right now the FCC has no realistic idea what the marketplace really is for HD Radio.

There’s a growing hunger to explore alternatives to HD on the AM dial. I was surprised by the number of Comments filed in the AM proceeding that suggested exploring Digital Radio Mondiale—a system unencumbered by the software-like and extremely closed intellectual property model of HD Radio, which most broadcasters have rejected on principle. DRM is finding traction on the AM dial elsewhere, particularly in countries that are projected to drive global economic growth in the 21st century.

At this point in the U.S. digital radio transition, what is there to lose by learning a bit more about DRM? Perhaps even the threat of competition may inspire HD’s proponents to address the system’s fundamental detriments.

The hardest things about writing documents for policy purposes are keeping an even tone and buying into the marketplace paradigm that pervades modern policymaking. Now that I’m between books, I plan to devote more time to participating in stuff like this—it’s something communications scholars in general don’t often do, but should do a lot more of.

Clashing Realities: iBiquity vs. Consumer Reports

In a new blog post, iBiquity Digital Corporation Ceo Bob Struble reports back from the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show about the changing landscape of automotive infotainment, and HD Radio as an "indispensable requirement" in today’s media environment.

HD Radio has some sort of foothold in "every car manufacturer" now, "and was built into 1/3 of all new cars sold in America last year," writes Struble. But that’s not enough: "Cars are coming with big, bright color screens as part of these infotainment systems. Car designers want advanced HD Radio features like iTunes Tagging and Artist Experience – album cover art – to take advantage of those screens and provide listeners with the experience they expect." The takeaway: broadcasters need to step up HD adoption.

This year’s CES saw the rise of the connected car, which Struble says broadcasters can compete with by offering HD-related datacast services like traffic and weather information. "Radio is jockeying with dozens of digital infotainment services in the car for listener time and attention," he observes. "It requires the industry to upgrade its basic offering to remain competitive in the dashboard. CES again showed that HD Radio technology is a fundamental competitive requirement in cars." The takeaway: broadcasters need to step up HD adoption.

Struble also laments the dwindling number of stand-alone radio receivers in the marketplace; HD’s presence here is almost nil. He urges the industry to "work collectively to turn it around – with lower cost and more fully-featured home and portable products, with HD Radio technology as an essential feature. Maybe an initiative to develop specific programming or promotions that could shore up home listening as well." The takeaway: broadcasters need to step up adoption as well as work to prevent the abandonment of HD Radio by the consumer electronics industry.

For nearly 2,000 words, Struble waxes on about the "continued rapid progress" of HD Radio, but repeatedly prods radio broadcasters to "redouble their efforts to keep their hard fought place in the media mix." In his world, HD Radio is flying high.

Contrast that with Consumer Reports. The venerable product ratings/review agency just released their annual auto issue, and of three automotive features they recommend you avoid, HD Radio is one of them. Dissed in just three sentences: "It’s advertised as having better fidelity than conventional AM/FM signals, but we’ve seen little benefit on the road. It’s offered by most major carmakers. We’ve found that the [digital] signals tend to come and go, resulting in annoying changes in sound quality" (p. 9).

This represents a change in perspective since 2011, when Consumer Reports first gave HD Radio a mixed review. The sad thing is that the technology exists to improve or even eliminate this particular problem—but doing so would require iBiquity to open the black box surrounding the system’s intellectual property. HD Radio’s proprietary nature is integral to iBiquity’s business model, and the company would rather continue to own all of nothing than a part of something meaningful.

The National Association of Broadcasters will hold their annual big-tent convention in Last Vegas next month. I asked the NAB if I could be a part of any panel/presentation that it was organizing on digital broadcasting, but was unsurprisingly denied. That’s too bad because it’s one of very few opportunities during the year for broadcasters to strategize directly about resuscitating radio’s digital transition, and the hunger to do so is palpable. The next big opportunity will be the NAB Radio Show in September.

Canada Considers Adopting HD Radio

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.