Will the Same Formula for Failure That Befell Past Attempts at FM Improvement Apply to IBOC as Well?
As IBOC works it way toward seeming deployment, there are many questions for broadcasters to ponder.
The first involves the process by which this format made its way to consideration as the potential future delivery means for U.S. radio broadcasting. Importantly, it did not follow the path of open standard development, which most of the world’s other digital media formats have taken.
From its beginnings in Project Acorn, through the fits and starts of USADR, to the joint venture of iBiquity, this system has been a closed development, created for and by commercial U.S. radio broadcasters.
While controlling one’s own destiny is a laudable goal and a cherished premise of American enterprise, the push for IBOC has run roughshod over another important American principle: consensus. It thereby violates one of the basic rules of the road in today’s technology development.
It hearkens back to an earlier, less-enlightened time, when corporate power and oligarchic hegemony could unilaterally control the path and market development of an industry. As a result, IBOC now runs the risk of failure in the marketplace.
Given the pivotal context of the moment, this decision could drag down the fortunes of a still-vibrant industry with it.
From the beginning, IBOC has been fundamentally a blocking policy, primarily intended to retain the status quo for incumbent broadcasters. From an engineering standpoint, it’s been a transition plan in search of a technology, with its primary requirements oriented toward damage control rather than growth.
The flavor of IBOC that has emerged is particularly strident in its prohibition of any quantitative expansion for the industry. Along the way, all the iterations of IBOC formats developed by USADR, and now by Ibiquity, have been reverse-engineered to prevent the opportunity for emergence of any new services that might further fragment the listening market.
Rather than competing on the basis of attracting listeners with a quality product, the systems have been designed to preserve scarcity as a means of securing success. The motto has been, “Let digital come, but let it do nothing to displace or dilute the existing marketplace.”
While this makes good business sense from a broadcast owner’s perspective, experience has shown that such purely qualitative improvements are rarely successful. Rather, it generally takes quantitative change, i.e., new services, to attract audience.
Many readers will remember that when FM stations were just higher-quality simulcasts of AM services, the new band was a dismal failure. Only when the FCC mandated separate programming on every broadcaster’s AM and FM stations did the new service succeed, eventually overtaking the senior service via its improved quality and quantity of signals. (One could argue that the qualitative difference between AM and FM was greater than analog FM and FM-IBOC, as well.)
The same can be said for cable television. Over-the-air TV was by far the dominant delivery method when all cable did was retransmit broadcast signals. Then HBO, Ted Turner and others came along to provide new content that could only be received on cable, and it didn’t take long before the new service dominated.
Today, satellite radio offers such service expansion, with some 150 or more new channels coming on line. Trying to counter this quantitative onslaught with a qualitative improvement such as IBOC is like fighting a stealth bomber with rocks and sticks.
This is not to say that IBOC won’t make terrestrial radio sound a little better, but that feature alone won’t do much to stem the tide of new offerings by satellite services (which, by the way, will probably sound as good, or slightly better than FM-IBOC).
Another indication of just how much IBOC comes “through the back door” from an engineering analysis is the extremely long buffering time required for successful capture and retention of the digital signal.
To eliminate acquisition latency when a user is tuning around, IBOC receivers will default to the analog channels whenever a station is changed. Only after settling on a station for several seconds will the receiver switch over to the IBOC signal. To do this smoothly, both the analog and digital audio signals will have to be delayed by similar amounts – probably somewhere around seven seconds.
Portable digital audio players have used this approach to counteract skipping from physical shocks during playback, but it is unusual for broadcast services. In recent years, broadcasters have become familiar with digital processing and transmission throughput delays of several hundred milliseconds at worst, and we’re all used to dealing with the approximately 1/4-second satellite-hop, but IBOC’s latency will be more than an order of magnitude greater. It will effectively eliminate off-air monitoring in live production.
From a technical standpoint, this provides a significant measure of robustness, but from a user’s perspective it may seem cumbersome, particularly for young listeners who enjoy scanning the dial. In many cases, they’ll be off to the next station before the IBOC signal kicks in.
It also calls into question the process of eventual migration away from the analog signal entirely, which has long been touted as an advantage of the IBOC approach. The “hybrid” phase of analog-digital channel sharing, which is considered a transitional period, may therefore be perpetuated – again keeping the door closed to inauguration of any future additional services.
So what’s the compelling reason for broadcasters to convert to IBOC? No new commerce will flow as a result, and it’s not even a very good defense against new competition. In fact, some stations may lose revenue on the deal if they have 92 kHz subcarrier services that must be shut down. Even if these are converted to auxiliary IBOC data, someone will have to pay for new receivers.
The only advantages are multipath reduction for FM and audio bandwidth/noise improvements for AM – but of course, these only really happen if receiver penetration is significant.
Therefore, the more important question asks what’s the compelling reason for mainstream consumers to purchase an IBOC radio? Beyond the audiophile fringe, there’s not much to offer. Even for that market segment, the long acquisition time may spoil the experience.
The most likely scenario for IBOC success is that broadcasters will feel compelled to convert out of competitive necessity (because other terrestrial stations are doing it), and that manufacturers of satellite radio receivers and other digital audio equipment will throw in IBOC features as a value-add.
Although there are some (rosy) scenarios in which the format could slowly succeed under such conditions, these seem like pretty lukewarm prospects at best.
You can’t fault the design of IBOC for these shortcomings. In fact, the engineers involved have been masterful in their creation of a system that fulfilled extremely challenging mandates.
You can’t fault existing broadcasters for coming up with such a mandate, either. When technology challenges your existing business, you have to react. Changing your business is one approach, but constraining the technology so your business doesn’t have to change is substantially preferable.
Both of these results are testimony to the smarts of today’s radio professionals. But they also show the value of an open standards process, which would not allow enfranchised private interests to unilaterally control the destiny of the public airwaves.
In fact, it is largely agreed that IBOC is a less-than-optimal migration path, yet it persists. This indicates how important the business aspects of radio broadcasting are in the United States, and how reduced the public service value of the medium has become.
The final arbiter remains the FCC, which has two pivotal issues before it.
First, will it rubber-stamp an essentially proprietary technology, thus eschewing the open standards process for terrestrial digital radio in the United States? Second, will it mandate broadcasters’ conversion to the technology?
If the answer to the former is affirmative, as seems likely, a sad but important precedent of recent times will be established.
So the major question that remains is the latter. Because an IBOC conversion provides no spectrum recovery (unlike the U.S. DTV transition), there is no federal revenue argument involved. Because there is also no real added service component possible, the tradition of past qualitative improvements may be followed (FM stereo, color TV, stereo TV), in which the broadcaster is encouraged (largely by market forces), but not compelled by regulation to make the upgrade.
This would probably be the correct call from a regulatory view, but if taken, the transition’s final outcome will be placed in even further doubt. And if IBOC fails, will U.S. radio have another chance at digital conversion?
These final steps of the process will likely be taken in the next few months, and with them much of U.S. terrestrial radio’s fate will be sealed.