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FCC Looks More Closely at IBOC

Terrestrial digital radio proponents have been hoping the FCC would move to solidify final rules for IBOC this year. Now that process has moved a big step forward.

WASHINGTON Terrestrial digital radio proponents have been hoping the FCC would move to solidify final rules for IBOC this year. Now that process has moved a big step forward.

At the same time, commissioners and staffers are asking a lot of questions – about content, about public service, about split channels and subscription fees – in their quest to craft further operational service rules for in-band, on-channel digital audio broadcasting.

In a Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making issued in April, commissioners noted that IBOC has potential beyond improved sound quality, such as datacasting, multiplexing and subscription services. It is seeking industry remarks on these and other possibilities. Comments are due June 16.

Content control

In this election year, two regulatory issues of interest have been raised for digital radio: content control and public service obligations. The FCC, which separately has cracked down on indecent programming, has issued a separate Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on content control for digital radio.

And in its Further Notice about DAB, the commission is raising questions about public interest and how radio should meet those obligations as IBOC technology enhances audio quality and potentially enables new services.

The commission initially selected IBOC as the preferred digital radio technology for this country in 2002. Now the agency is building on interim operation requirements to develop final authorizations as well as related licensing and service rule changes.

Chairman Michael Powell said the action “demonstrates the commission’s commitment to developing the necessary framework to ensure a successful digital audio conversion.”

Commissioners noted potential new data services such as station, song and artist identification, stock and news information, as well as local traffic and weather bulletins. With IBOC, a station also is capable of splitting its digital channel so that it may broadcast multiple streams of audio.

The commission seeks comment on what changes it must make to its technical rules to further radio’s digital transition, especially regarding proposals to allow AM nighttime service. The FCC also wants to hear about the possible effects on FM translators, including services such as reading services for the visually impaired. Questions regarding interference are raised for comment.

The commission asks what kind of digital services stations should be allowed to offer, such as multiplexing and datacasting, and whether subscription services have a place in terrestrial digital radio.

Commissioners also are asking if radio has considered the role of public interest obligations. The agency seeks comment on how digital broadcasting can enhance political discourse and the extent to which it should include news or public affairs programming in its service rules.

Commissioner Michael Copps believes the questions about public service requirements don’t go far enough.

“I would have preferred an even broader discussion of the public interest in this item rather than deferring some important issues to future proceedings. As just one example, an issue that we raised in the context of digital television but which is not addressed here is how broadcasters can identify community needs and enhance disclosure to their communities of how they are meeting their obligations.

“We now have over 1,000 digital (television) stations … and over 200 stations that are multicasting. And yet, these broadcasters still don’t know what they must do to discharge their public interest obligations. And consumers don’t know what to expect from digital radio either.”

Copps also believes the multicasting issue, the split channel concept for FM radio, raises questions regarding ownership rules. While the extra channels offer the promise of more diversity of programming, the sudden addition of more channels could change the competitive landscape in local markets, he said.

“What does it mean for competition if a company that would be permitted to own eight radio stations in a market also obtains the ability to multicast many more programming streams? Does that really promote competition, localism and diversity in the digital era? We need to be looking at such questions before we leap.”

The agency seeks public input about digital’s effect on noncommercial stations and low-power FMs and how such stations may introduce DAB.

A day before its April 15 meeting in which commissioners passed the notice on service rules, it asked for comment specifically on AM nighttime authorization.

In July, NAB submitted evaluations of tests conducted by Ibiquity Digital, and the NAB Radio Board recommended to the commission that it allow nighttime IBOC operation.

AMs now cannot go digital at night because when the commission authorized IBOC, it didn’t have hard data to disprove whether there could be significant interference from digital AMs to analog neighbors at night, especially during skywave propagation conditions.

An NAB engineering group said interference might occur in some situations but found it acceptable; it noted the commission has the ability to address instances of unexpected levels of interference.

The FCC seeks comment on authorizing AM nighttime IBOC with special temporary authority procedures. Comments are due June 14.