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All-Digital on the AM Band? The FCC Might Allow It Soon

Pai says commission will consider permitting voluntary transitions by stations

AM radio station operators in the United States may soon have the option of switching their transmissions to all-digital.

It’s not a done deal; but the concept is about to take a step closer to reality, because the Federal Communications Commission will consider a proposal at its next meeting that would start a process. It will take comments on whether to allow AM band licensees to make the switch if they want.

Ben Downs, VP/GM of Bryan Broadcasting in Texas, petitioned the FCC in March to initiate a proceeding to authorize the all-digital mode of HD Radio.

[Read a commentary from Ben Downs about why he asked the FCC to take this step.]

Allowing stations to use all-digital transmission is an idea that some broadcasters feel could give business-challenged AM stations in the United States new life or at least another option. Turning off their analog signals would mean that most existing receivers could no longer pick up that signal; but many AM broadcasters are currently heard on FM translator simulcasts now. And adding the all-digital AM option could open up new possibilities for them as the number of digital receivers in the marketplace continues to grow.

One station, WWFD in Frederick, Md., owned by Hubbard, is operating in all-digital AM under special temporary authority, as RW has reported.

Chairman Ajit Pai described the proposal in a blog post Monday: “Just as the FCC is trying to keep pace with changes in the market, so are AM radio operators, and the commission wants to give them as much flexibility as possible to compete in the digital age,” Pai wrote.

“AM radio stations are currently authorized to operate with either analog signals or hybrid signals, which combine analog and digital signals. In three weeks, we will consider a proposal to allow AM licensees to broadcast using an all-digital signal on a voluntary basis. It would seek comment on topics ranging from the predicted benefits of all-digital AM broadcasting to the interference potential of all-digital stations, as well as addressing the technical standards for all-digital AM stations. And because all-digital broadcasting would be on a voluntary basis, AM operators would be the ones deciding if transitioning is right for them.”

[Read Radio World’s recent ebook “What’s Ahead for All-Digital AM?”]

“I think this is a uniquely positive step in AM revitalization,” Downs told Radio World on Tuesday. “We’ve talked for years about the rise in the noise on the AM band and how the quality of receivers has declined. But this is the first time we’ve had a chance to directly resolve both of these issues. With the approval of AM all-digital we have a technology that cleans up all the noise and hash we’ve been complaining about and sends an FM quality signal out of the speakers.”

The docket opened by the Media Bureau is No. 19-311, “All-Digital AM Broadcasting.”