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Lots of Things Need to Happen Before All-Digital AM

Broadcasters debate receiver mandate, digital sunrise, analog sunset

Is the industry ready for all-digital AM transmission?

That’s the central question several broadcasters debated during a Broadcast Engineering session yesterday at the 2015 NAB Show.

Andy Skotdal, owner of S-R Broadcasting, said regarding the chairman’s announcement about his intention to move on AM revitalization proposals: “It’s this kind of limp response that makes me wonder whether AM all-digital is ever going to happen. I’m saving $4,000 a month” by using the power-saving technology MDCL.

His two diplexed AMs were two of nine that NAB Labs conducted field tests on for all-digital HD Radio AM transmission and reception.

Skotdal said he liked what he heard on the tests, but still heard drop-outs. Plus, “When you see the FCC move in minuscule steps and often the wrong steps, I don’t see how you can get any traction on this issue.”

WDGY(AM), St. Paul, Minn., Owner Greg Borgen said “AM is all I know. Something has to start to move the ball forward.”

There’s no question someday the AM band will be all-digital, but unanswered is which system would be used, according to Hatfield & Dawson President Ben Dawson, noting that either the iBiquity technology, DRM or potentially a new system could be used. Some of his small market clients are adamant that they are never going to pay a private company, meaning iBiquity, “for the privilege of going digital,” according to Dawson.

CBS Radio SVP Engineering Glynn Walden said DRM would need to be vetted like HD Radio was, and that could take four to five years.

Panelists discussed the pros and cons of a receiver mandate to hasten digital receiver penetration in the market and what that figure should be before the industry pulled the trigger on all-digital AM. They also debated whether seeking a migration to television analog Channels 5 and 6 is really doable considering the upcoming television spectrum auction and subsequent repack. Thoughts were mixed on all questions.

Skotdal says there is a laundry list of things that need to be considered and acted on before the industry goes all-digital, including setting allocations standards, interference standards, an HD carrier mask standard, controlling conversion costs, increased receiver penetration, licensee incentives, affordable field testing ear, setting a digital sunrise data and an analog sunset date.

Time is running out for AM, several panelists fear. “There are some days I fear that we can see our shelf life,” said Downs.

“I love AM radio. I want to see it get better and survive,” said Walden, who added he realized in 1990 that analog’s world is ending. “Analog is an historical artifact that we need help to move on from our regulators.”

Dawson added that, “I don’t think analog will ever go away but in large, industrialized countries its practical use is slowly fading.”