FCC's Initial Rulemaking on IBOC Could Doom It to Failure

Much punditry has already been expended on the FCC's landmark launch of IBOC radio broadcasting in October. With this action, the commission allowed adventurous broadcasters to set sail on an as-yet-uncharted digital sea.
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Much punditry has already been expended on the FCC's landmark launch of IBOC radio broadcasting in October. With this action, the commission allowed adventurous broadcasters to set sail on an as-yet-uncharted digital sea.

The commission, however, did not mandate that broadcasters take such a plunge and convert to the new format, and consequently no timetable was set for the transition.

Given that there is no spectrum recovery or any other broader benefit to the public in an IBOC conversion, this makes sense. But it doesn't do much to speed the transition.

(Ibiquity may have done more for that cause by allowing a waiver of its software licensing fees to broadcasters if they commit to the technology by year's end. Pretty tricky move in itself, given that Ibiquity only introduced the concept of levying such fees a few months earlier, and hadn't yet collected a single penny on the plan. Reminds me of the trick of raising your rates just so you can appear to offer a discount. But I digress.)

Meanwhile, the FCC report and order on IBOC did mandate that if a broadcaster implemented the technology, the audio program carried on the digital signal must be the same as that broadcast on the analog carrier. While this follows the technical proposals that Ibiquity has presented all along during the system's development, it now sets in regulatory concrete the premise that IBOC will be purely a qualitative enhancement, eliminating the prospect of adding new audio services, even if a broadcaster wanted to do so.

There is still the possibility that some additional narrowband audio streams or downloaded files could be sent via auxiliary data paths on the IBOC channel, but here again, the FCC failed to mandate any standard (or even to require that a future standard be set) for such auxiliary services, rendering dim the ultimate prospects for such enhancements. Unless these elements were standardized and mandated, it is unlikely that any such new services would ever develop and succeed.

Turning about

It is with some irony that the FCC now is mandating the permanent simulcast of what might have been independent analog and digital signals on an IBOC service. The commission is obviously not a student of its own history, in which a mandate prohibiting such simulcasts between AM and FM channels are what ultimately led to the success of FM broadcasting, following decades of its languishing near failure (see the article "To Look Ahead, Try Looking Back," in the Nov. 20 issue) .

If the pure qualitative improvement that FM brought to AM was not enough to stimulate broad penetration of FM, it is unlikely that an even smaller increment in quality (between FM and IBOC) will generate mainstream consumer acceptance of the new service. The only way HD Radio will find its way into consumers homes and cars is likely by accident, as a value-added or bundled feature with other, more purposefully desired items (like a car CD changer or satellite radio). Given this lukewarm motivation for consumers, and no mandate for broadcasters to implement the service, the future of HD Radio seems grim indeed.

Nevertheless, all is not yet lost. It took nearly 30 years for the FCC to amend its FM rules and eliminate AM-FM simulcasts. Let's hope the commission won't take so long to rethink its errant mandates this time.

Unfortunately, in the IBOC case, there are ramifications of the decision that affect receiver design, such as the ability to manually switch between analog and digital services on a channel, which would only be offered if separate programming were possible. So if the commission waits very long to make changes this time around, first-generation IBOC radios won't be able to accommodate the possibility of receiving the new services.

The proper approach is not a mandate either way for broadcasters. Stations should be free to simulcast, or to separately program analog and digital services on their carriers, and to choose either approach dynamically over the broadcast day. The only regulatory mandate would involve IBOC receivers' capability to handle independent services via sub-channel tuning, similar to the approach used for multicasting in digital television.

Come on, commissioners. It's still not too late to turn the ship around and save IBOC. But you'd better hurry, because you've already set it on a course toward the falls.

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