Digital Radio: A Spectrum Giveaway in Disguise

As has been widely reported, the FCC approved yesterday a new digital radio system for use on the AM and FM dials. iBiquity’s IBOC system allows for a digital signal to be sandwiched in with a station’s analog signal, along with sandwiching in the ability to offer digital data services, such as wireless broadband Internet. Per the FCC’s news release:

“After extensive tests, the National Radio Systems Committee endorsed the AM and FM IBOC systems developed by iBiquity…. The NRSC tests show that the iBiquity IBOC systems offer better audio quality, more robust signals, and the potential for new auxiliary services. According to system supporters, IBOC technology will provide near CD-quality sound on FM channels and FM quality on AM channels. Hybrid IBOC operations will have minimal impact on the present broadcast service.

Note that they say it will have “minimal impact on the present broadcast service” — do not mistake that for no impact. Markedly absent from news reports on this or in the FCC’s own announcement is that IBOC doubles the bandwidth used by a station, taking up the space on the dial between stations that has been historically used to prevent interference.

Yesterday I talked to Christopher Maxwell, who’s been following the rise of IBOC for years now, and keeping people informed on his Digital Disaster website. He says that the additional bandwidth hogged up by IBOC broadcasts will blot out distant, but receivable, stations heard on second and third adjacents (frequencies that are two and three steps (.1 Mhz) on either side of an IBOC digital station. And he had the evidence to show it, straight from the radio industry’s own studies.

My interview with Christopher Maxwell will air on the mediageek radio show today at 5:30 PM on community radio WEFT 90.1 FM. It’ll be archived for on-line listening this weekend — I’ll make a blog post when it’s done.

In other digital radio news, Wired News is purusing the angle that terrestrial digital broadcasting means a death knell for digital satellite radio. In particular, the article notes that both satellite radio companies are not particularly healthy, with Sirius — the second service to launch — hobbling along with just 6510 subscribers and “a staggering net loss of $192 million on revenues of $54,000.”

The problem I see with the argument that digital broadcasting will kill satellite radio is that, as I understand it, IBOC only provides one channel of “near-CD quality” audio per station. At first, it’s likely that this digital channel will simply mirror the analog channel — just like the first 20 years of FM broadcasting, when most FM stations were owned by AM station operators who simply simulcasted their programming on both signals.

Further, the IBOC signals will probably be just as rife with commercials as analog AM and FM since they’re not subscription services. The appeal of satellite radio, I thought, is the multitude of relatively diverse and eclectic channels, many of which lack advertising altogether. On top of that, satellite radio is nationwide, allowing you to hear NPR or indie rock even on a lonely interstate in the middle of Montana.

This isn’t to say that I’m cheering on the success of satellite radio — it’s use of terrestrial repeaters, questionable sound quality and anti-localism are all questionable. But I am hostile to reporting intended to create news and controversy where there is none, and I’m even more hostile to the “Look, Cool New Thing Changes Everything” brand of reporting that I’m seeing with IBOC.

Hey Wired, how about asking some critical questions about IBOC instead of just sucking up all the industry and FCC hype like so much coke through a straw?






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *