Commentary: Stop Playing Pity Game With AM
     

 
The author is a consultant based in Moorhead, Minn.
 
I have been a reader of Radio World for many, many years and have always appreciated the boots-on-the-ground approach taken. It is an approach that most often represents reality.
 
I read with dismay about the digital radio testing that is being done in the AM band using only the iBiquity IBOC model (“All-Digital Testing Expands,” Dec. 4). Why is there no mention of DRM?
 
I regularly enjoy full-stereo broadcasts on the shortwave bands from stations using DRM. Our new Nautel 50 kW transmitters come DRM-ready. It appears to me that if a similar analog sunset date had been set for AM broadcasters by the commission, as was done in the move to HDTV, AM would immediately enter the digital age and become a player in today’s media.
 
I was asked recently by my employer to draft a short summary of what has transpired in the AM/FM industry in recent years and state my opinion on what needs to happen. The following is what I wrote (opinions are my own, not my employer’s):
 
Over a decade ago, the broadcast industry was authorized to proceed with an in-band, on-channel method of obtaining a digital-analog hybrid method of migration that would eventually facilitate a transition to full digital modulation for traditional AM and FM broadcasters.
 
This hybrid approach has not proved viable for AM broadcasters and has had limited success for FM. By all accounts, the implementation rate has stalled while other countries are enjoying digital-only approaches like DRM.
 
Critical mass has not been reached for various reasons, including the lack of consumer receiver options and the failure to set a date for exclusive digital modulation, as was done for television broadcasters in the HDTV transition.
 
 
Gary Ellingson
Various approaches have come along during this same period, with the intent to revitalize the AM broadcast band. Pressures have been put on the FCC to reinforce interference standards to mitigate the intrinsic susceptibility to interference that AM modulation has. A call to gradually migrate AM stations to FM translator frequencies has been made, an approach taken in several countries that resulted in the complete abandonment of the AM broadcast band.
 
Recently, there has been some motion to eliminate the need for enforcement of the nighttime interference contours, in an effort to allow time-limited stations to remain on the air and at even higher powers during otherwise restricted times.
 
While these approaches can be argued from various perspectives, they fail to leverage the simple physics of propagation that the AM broadcast band has. In the case of interference, implementation of digital modulation technology exclusively would address the noise and interference issue and allow AM and FM broadcasters to more easily participate in the digital communications revolution.
 
The simple announcement of a switch-off date for analog broadcasts coincidental with a call for manufacturers to produce suitable receivers would give some closure to the never-ending process that was begun. Furthermore, it would stimulate the economy through the production process and promote the process of taking many stations from still-operating legacy transmission devices to current technology.
 
Finally, the physics of propagation have been known and studied since the turn of the 20th century. If AM broadcasters would implement an exclusive digital transmission scheme, a scheme that cannot succeed without the establishment of an analog turn-off date, the AM band would exhibit characteristics and coverage that not only matches that of the FM band but, in many cases, exceeds the same.
 
Once everything is fully digital, the poor-stepchild perception of AM and FM broadcasting would disappear and the long-desired revitalization would occur.
 
 

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Comment List:

Part 2 As we are all aware of, the patent trolls are suing broadcasters using IBOC, and not iBiquity. Once the level of legal fees gets high enough, IBOC will be turned off for good. That's a matter of fact. As far as receivers is concerned, a number of manufacturers have just stopped making radios; be it IBOC, DRM, or DAB. Try finding a table top radio today. On the immediate horizon are two manufacturers who have chipsets in hand that cover all modes, but no buyers yet. I have a high end radio that I would replace if someone would offer such a radio. As Clara would say, "Where's the Beef?"
By Michael Payne on 2/1/2014
An analog radio service can't be "revitalized" by keeping it analog. People do not listen to radio because of its modulation type. If they want the programming their stations offer, and if the stations are effective in promoting it, consumers will buy receivers and converters. This is especially likely given the plummeting cost of the components and the massive manufacturing capacity in the Far East. The HDTV transition and the direct satellite broadcast services have proven this, not to mention the podcast revolution.
By Ambient on 1/30/2014
One faulty assumption here. People will go out and buy new radios. Sorry, but that's not going to happen in any event. Radio's benefit today is portability, and on millions of dashboards. Take that signal from the dashboard and see what happens. Expecting people to buy new radios and reinstall their dashboard receivers is ludicrous. TV benefitted from HD (High Definition) technology, and the vast reach of cable (which still works on most analog receivers). Sony, Samsung and others benefit from making $800-$3000 televisions, while the profit margin on new digital receivers (radio) would be miniscule. Want to see a service die? Take it off the existing platform. It will be replaced by other audio services....or forgotten altogether.
By Dave Mason on 1/26/2014
I read with interest the comments posted in response to my opinion. I am not surprised that DRM proved inflammatory and served to mask the entire thrust of the article: We need to switch to an entirely digital mode of transmission for both AM and FM sooner rather than later. Whether the United States continues with the Ibiquity model or any other system is not the issue. The issue is further foot-dragging and stalled efforts in the move to an entirely digital platform.
By Gary Ellingson on 1/23/2014
Part three of three: From the marketplace viewpoint, there are reportedly 15 million cars now on the road in the USA with HD Radio receivers. All of them receive AM, and the reports indicate they work fine with an all-digital signal. Sidestepping the argument of any technical comparison between the two systems, why would anyone want to stop a national rollout in mid stream and start over with a whole new technology? How many more years would it take to get the same number of cars with DRM receivers on the road? The question about using DRM AM in the US is dead on arrival.
By dave burns on 1/21/2014
Part two of three: Select "Show all stations" and then sort the list into ascending order by frequency. You will see that there are only two DRM AM stations in the world - a 100 watt station in Germany and one station in India that broadcasts a partial day's schedule in digital. Just a few years ago, there were dozens of DRM AM stations on the air, but almost all of them have turned it off. That's not exactly the sign of a successful AM implementation.
By dave burns on 1/21/2014
Part One of two or three: The author of this article unfortunately overstates the reality of DRM implementation in the world. Yes, DRM is a great digital shortwave system, but where are the AM and FM stations? More importantly, where are the receivers?? Prove it to yourself. Take a look at DRM's list of stations on the air worldwide: http://www.drm.org/?page_id=151
By dave burns on 1/21/2014
Why is there no mention of DRM? Your question must be rhetorical because we know the answer. AM IBOC was set up to privatize and monetize a secondary licensing system. I never fell for it but many people took the bait. I'm not smarter, just more cynical. It may have worked if the laws of physics had suddenly been altered to eliminate sky wave, but no amount of money, "happy talk" or press releases could change reality. You want DRM to replace our 100 year old technology? Simple! Monetize it. The Government should privatize a re-licensing system for all DRM stations, transmitters, and receiver technology. Then hold an auction so only the top bidding company is awarded all the rights to this multi-billion dollar prize. Then, step back and watch the hogs run to the trough
By Fred Lundgren on 1/20/2014
You hit the nail on the head Gary. I have even gone as far as to address these issues to Commissioner Pai.
By Michael Payne on 1/19/2014
I would add that static crashes during a thunderstorm render an HD radio useless, while an analog AM radio quickly recovers and audio continues while the HD tuner is still filling its buffer with digital data until the next static crash wipes out seconds of valuable data. I would welcome several schemes to be tested, include DRM, DRM+, even throw Sony into it with ATRAC digital, as well as new hybrid solutions to be tested, including Leonard Kahn's system, as well as iBiquity's HD-AM hybrid and all digital. Let's make it a big test with different antenna patterns, power, and even try simulcating from multiple sites! Let the testing begin!
By Al Boreland on 1/17/2014
I have been saying this about AM for years. As a television broadcaster, I'm naturally against having channels 5&6 confiscated for FM broadcasting. This approach along with using FM translators might save the bacon of AM stations temporarily but it does nothing to address the current problems facing the band itself. IBOC has proven to be a disaster for AM. But going digital-only offers a very good chance of saving the band as well as protecting the value of AM stations which, for now, are losing value every day. Yes, going DRM would be good but going digital-only, the FCC establishing a sunset date for analog, is a necessity if AM is going to survive. Well said, Gary.
By Daniel Brown on 1/17/2014

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