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A Better Way to Implement AM IBOC

Will the controversial invention now called HD Radio steadily grow and gather more speed as it courses down the slope of radio technology history? Or will it break apart encountering too many obstacles and fall by the wayside with earlier contestants like FM Quad and AM stereo?

Like a small snowball slowly rolling from the top of a hill, IBOC conversion in the United States seems to be getting underway.

Will the controversial invention now called HD Radio steadily grow and gather more speed as it courses down the slope of radio technology history? Or will it break apart encountering too many obstacles and fall by the wayside with earlier contestants like FM Quad and AM stereo?

The FCC has just issued the long-awaited initial R&O authorizing deployment of HD. Radio aficionados in the six rollout markets have a ringside seat for this one.

We’re glad CEO Bob Struble and the Ibiquity brain trust took our advice and waived the licensing fees for early adopters through the end of this year. It just had to happen if deployment is going to be jump-started. And it reassures the industry that Ibiquity has more patience and caring for the long-term future of radio than many had given them credit for.

Thanks Bob. I hate to ask again, but could you possibly extend this?

Impressive in Seattle

The NAB Radio Show in Seattle unveiled a few more clues on how the rollout is likely to fare.

One group owner stepped up to the plate and announced purchasing IBOC transmission gear from Harris at the convention. Urban specialist Radio One was the first major market group to jump on the bandwagon and commit money to add HD. Ibiquity, along with Harris and other manufacturers are betting heavily that others will climb aboard soon.

Over-the-air comparisons have confirmed in all tested markets that HD Radio on FM “sounds better” and clearly outperforms analog in mitigating noise and interference, plus adding the potential of expanded data services. Seattle NAB HD demos on Entercom’s KISW and Infinity’s KBKS played very well, as expected. Every FM IBOC demo in a fixed setting or moving vehicle I’ve heard over the past three years have delivered impressive results. HD FM clearly is ready.

Whether data will become the “killer-app” for HD and make broadcasters significant revenue is the big unanswered question in this entire proceeding.

If it were only about the FM band, HD Radio would likely have an easier task picking up converts and convincing consumers that the new radios will be worth buying.

HD for AM, on the other hand, has emerged as a much more problematic and challenging proposition. Saddled with painfully narrow bandwidth and a compromised allocations scheme that allows neighboring adjacent channels to interfere with each other, HD on AM may be a snowball rolling uphill.

The promise and the pain of AM

The Ibiquity digital solution developed for AM has long held the promise of 15 kHz stereo and noise-free reception – a giant leap forward for all stations on the venerable low-fi band that would give them parity with today’s FM stereo. While such extraordinary improvement appears to be mostly real, it will come at the expense of creating some new interference to analog listeners. That’s the disconcerting part for many with vested interests in existing AM stations and those who are worried about being able to hear weaker signals.

The interference will come in two flavors. The NRSC sounded the initial concern about nighttime coverage for HD and skywave interference, withholding endorsement of the system for FCC approval until more studies could be completed. Ibiquity’s “final” report on this is expected shortly.

The more overlooked scenario is daytime interference involving suburban and rim-shot stations trying to cover a nearby larger market served by a powerful second- or third-adjacent-channel signal. Much of this new perceived interference will be receiver induced.

We’ve heard about a few over-the-air tests that are attempting to characterize what happens to the nighttime listenability of one station when subjected to HD noise from a first-adjacent station via groundwave or skywave. Several well-known engineers recently evaluated the impact of HD interference using WOR 710 and WLW 700 as test cases. We understand that measurements and qualitative assessments were made for skywave interference to groundwave reception and groundwave interference to skywave reception for all typical scenarios of desired to undesired signal strength ratios. Skywave interference to skywave reception was even considered. Does anyone besides members of AM DX clubs even do that anymore?

Ibiquity’s summary report on this has not been released yet, but it will likely say that only one of these modes is going to pose a real problem. Interference will be noticeable and objectionable only when someone tries to listen to a skywave or weaker groundwave signal in the presence of a stronger first adjacent interferer – like when a WLW skywave listener in northern New Jersey tries to hear the Reds ballgame with WOR bearing down with a signal stronger than about 2 mV/m. Is this scenario going to be a problem for significant numbers of AM radio listeners?

Understanding the NIF

Nighttime service coverage largely is determined by the NIF or nighttime interference free contour. The FCC calculates this number based on RSS summing of all predicted skywave signals arriving into the coverage area of a given station.

Skywave signals reflected from the ionosphere generally achieve received levels of only 2 mV/m or less. Few stations nowadays have NIFs close to 2 mV/m – mostly the 50 kW clear channels and some of the very old regional channel stations.

The majority of AM stations have NIFs higher than 5 mV/m. They lose a ton of meaningful nighttime service outside their primary 5 mV/m contour. NIFs of even 10 or 15 mV/m are common. Pity those above 20 mV/m. There are quite a few. The only silver lining in this ionospheric cloud is that much of the time, useful coverage extends to about half the NIF for many stations.

Ibiquity figures that with skywave signals rarely exceeding 2 mV/m, little meaningful coverage will be lost. Using an extensive computerized study of existing AM signal coverage across the entire United States, they project the overall loss of service at less than 1 percent. If that’s true, it’s more of a confirmation of the sad fact that not too many folks listen to weaker signals at night on AM radio. It’s mostly because they can’t.

You can’t please ’em all

The daytime interference issue for HD on AM is only beginning to be heard.

Sandusky’s nostalgia station KIXI demonstrated HD Radio for the Seattle NAB show, using an older Harris DX-50 transmitter. We understand Harris engineers encountered significant difficulty getting HD to work and keep it working for reasons not fully disclosed.

Various radio-tech participants mention hearing noise interference beyond the first-adjacent channels throughout the KIXI coverage area. Similar comments followed the IBOC testing on AM 1140 in Las Vegas during recent conventions.

I didn’t hear anything significant on my rental car radio while cruising Seattle beyond the KIXI first adjacents. But depending on the design of the radio, perceived interference appears to vary considerably. Those with wider IF bandwidths and better high-end frequency response performance appear to be more vulnerable.

I did think the KIXI on-air HD signal heard on several receivers in the Harris NAB booth sounded impressive compared to the analog. It’s hard to argue otherwise with the high end opening up from 3 or 4 kHz all the way to FM-like 15 kHz response. In spite of minor compression artifacts, the average listener would almost certainly agree.

Meeting the mask

It’s not really a matter of whether HD AM transmissions can meet the existing NRSC mask. Ibiquity has maintained in their considerable testing that they can.

In fact, Ibiquity is saying the existing NRSC mask will be made even more restrictive than it is now, to afford better adjacent-channel and host analog protection. I guess that’s reassuring, but many in this industry are still worried about HD AM digital interference to the millions of analog radios out there during the hybrid phase. Ibiquity engineers spent considerable effort making this work for the demos. But it may prove to be difficult to keep many existing transmitters within the mask when setup for HD AM by others.

For several extended periods over the past year, WTOP 1500 in Washington, D.C., has been running HD to enable both day and night HD coverage and interference evaluation. Most of Ibiquity’s concern has been focused on first adjacent interference. The digital sidesaddles sit 20 dB down, squarely in the middle of the first-adjacent passbands. They may have under-estimated how many radios respond to the second adjacents. Most existing radios seem to fare better suppressing interference from analog modulation limited by the NRSC mask than from HD digital.

Suburban DC foreign language stations WPWC 1480 and WTRI 1520 are not too happy with all the new digital hash coming from WTOP. We’ve heard that it’s made it almost impossible for many of their listeners to hear those less than 5 mV/m signals in the DC area. Such stations were bought and sold based on values supported by their ability to serve part of the larger metro area with the analog signal.

Protecting the weak

This might become a thorny problem for the FCC. Do daytime signals less than 5 mV/m deserve any protection with the advent of HD and the use of wider bandwidth radios? There are perhaps more than 1,000 stations licensed to bedroom communities trying to serve larger nearby markets.

Some would suggest the FCC let the suburban genie out of the bottle long ago and it’s now coming back to haunt them. The concept of city of license and maintenance of premium signal levels to ensure reliable service has taken a beating over the years. Blame some of that on greedy and opportunistic broadcasters.

Many HD AM naysayers are predicting the band will become a sea of hash rendering all weaker signals unusable when most stations in every market convert. We may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg on this issue. As more HD AM signals come on the air, many more complaints will likely be heard.

Even though the vast majority of AM listeners will benefit by HD, should the FCC pay any attention to these concerns before writing the final rules for HD AM?

It could get messy.

Skipping the AM hybrid mode

A few consultants and industry observers, including yours truly, think there might be a better way to implement HD AM.

Let the FCC authorize the standard for receivers now, but skip the AM hybrid mode entirely and delay conversion for transmission. The benefits of all-digital, similar to those being implemented for Digital Radio Mondiale, are dramatic and impressive. HD FM would deploy on schedule as proposed, allowing HD receivers for both AM and FM to begin filling the marketplace.

In less than 10 years, the majority of all radios in use would be HD-capable, making it feasible for all stations in the AM service to make a one-time complete conversion to all-digital. Dropping analog has been the ultimate goal from the beginning. The FCC would set the date perhaps five years in advance, giving all parties with a vested interest plenty of time to prepare for the heralded event.

FM could also convert to all-digital at the same time unless LPFMs and smaller stations needed more time. Certainly that could be negotiated. The precedent for mandating the end of the old service has already been established for TV. But no, this would not be another HDTV boondoggle. It’s comparatively cheap and easy to add HD transmission to most AM stations and only a bit more challenging for FM.

Something for everybody

This proposal accomplishes several vitally important goals. First, it eliminates the messy hybrid transition phase for AM and all of the concerns about interference.

Most important, it forces the issue of industry wide acceptance for all parties and guarantees the entire industry that HD Radio will be adopted. No more “let the marketplace decide” uncertainty. Stations will know well in advance they will have to make the conversion.

Receiver manufacturers will know well in advance that analog radios will no longer be necessary and can focus on building HD and all digital designs. They have made it clear that it’s more expensive to build and market both HD and analog-only radios. Prices for HD receiver chips would drop more rapidly enabling affordable Walkman and tabletop versions.

Finally, it allows more time to further develop and enhance the HD AM system with software improvements that would later be conveyed to all the smart receivers already out there. No telling what technology breakthroughs might be uncovered and discovered in this arena over the next ten years.

Protecting the present, enabling the future

Some might argue that delaying HD conversion for AM would only cripple it more and give FM yet another technological advantage for many years. The percentage of radio listeners using AM has finally stopped eroding and has leveled off in 2002 at about 19 percent. Most of that is concentrated on the lucrative news/sports/talk formats and is not going to change because FM has HD.

Our proposal effectively protects AM from any further loss of listening caused by interference until all stations convert to HD together.

The most radical and unnerving realization here is that all existing analog radios would be rendered instantly useless. Lots of collectables, paperweights and throwaways would be created by the flick of a switch. While many of you might view this as unthinkable, it would just be another event in the long history of technological evolution that has relegated the hardware of old obsolete inventions to the scrap heap.

Anybody who wants to keep using radio would have plenty of time and forewarning to acquire a new HD model. The analog-only radio just might become the next 386 DOS computer.