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The FCC Will Vote This Month on All-Digital AM

Pai signals pending action to allow a voluntary migration

The Federal Communications Commission will vote this month on whether to allow AM stations in the United States to convert to all-digital HD Radio if they wish to do so.

Commission watchers have expected some action this year. Commissioner Ajit Pai announced the planned vote on his blog, calling AM revitalization “a passion of mine.”

Based on anecdotal evidence, the commission will likely approve it.

The details of the proposed report and order are expected to be public shortly. Among questions to watch for are whether all-digital AM operation would be allowed both day and night; what provision the FCC makes for a station to change its mind later; and whether the commission will waver from its stances on not allowing the use of other platforms like Digital Radio Mondiale and not allowing multicasts of an AM digital signal to be carried on translators.

Industry support

Industry comments on the idea of allowing optional all-digital operation have generally been favorable, with the caveat that any such transition must be voluntary.

It’s unknown how many owners would take advantage of the option, at least right away. The amount of real-world broadcaster experience is limited to only two stations that have tried it, one of which soon turned it off during the day after hearing listener complaints, and later ended its testing.

One veteran engineering professional told Radio World recently that he sees “no major U.S. radio companies showing any interest in investing in AM all-digital; and that for many owners, keeping their AM stations on the air now is pretty much just about retaining their FM translator footprint rather than keeping the AM on the air on its own merits.”

[Related: Read our special report on the AM revitalization effort to date.]

But the possibility that the FCC would allow a station to go all-digital is notable, and marks a potentially important milestone in the overall expansion of digital technology on U.S. radio stations.

If an AM station turns on all-digital transmission, listeners with analog-only AM radios will not be able to hear the signal. For that reason, for many years broadcasters swore that they’d never consider it.

But with the AM band’s ongoing problems; with more HD Radio receivers available in recent-model cars that can receive the signals; and with many AM owners now able to reach their markets with FM translators, the idea seems at least marginally less scary. Calls to allow the all-digital option have increased in recent years under the commission’s AM revitalization umbrella.

“Due to a number of technical constraints of the AM band and limitations of the HD Radio hybrid mode, fewer than 250 AM stations have implemented hybrid operations,” Pai wrote Monday.

“This October, the commission will vote on a Report and Order that would give AM broadcasters the option to convert to all-digital operations, which offer listeners a higher quality audio experience over a greater area.

“Since all-digital broadcasting would be on a voluntary basis, AM operators would decide for themselves if the transition is right for them and their listeners.”

Pai pointed out that WWFD in Frederick, Md., which has transitioned to digital AM through special temporary authority, has gone from having no ratings in the market to a being a Nielsen-ranked station.

“This hints at digital AM’s potential to bring AM stations back from the brink of extinction to become competitive players in the market.”

[Watch Radio World’s webcast “Digital Sunrise” for AM Radio.” ]

Three AM stations have received STAs to operate with all-digital AM; only one is currently active.

Hubbard’s WWFD has been using all-digital for three years. WIOE in Fort Wayne, Ind., recently tried all-digital both full- and part-time but now is not using it; the owner has said listeners weren’t ready. WTLC in Indianapolis has an STA but its owner Urban One has expressed disappointment that the FCC  did not approve its request that multicast channels of the AM test signal be rebroadcast over those two FM translators.

It has been seven years since then-Commissioner Ajit Pai hosted a session at a spring NAB Show exploring various possible futures for AM radio including an “analog sunset.”

At that time, then-CBS Radio Senior Vice President of Engineering Glynn Walden deplored AM solutions that “nibble around the edges.” The AM band, he said at that 2013 session, “is a hostile environment,” and Walden called for the commission “to declare an analog sunset” and for AM radio to move to an all-digital service.

Few broadcasters then or since have spoken publicly about any such enforced “sunset,” and this month’s planned vote to allow all-digital goes nowhere near that outcome.