WASHINGTON Oct. 10 was the day digital radio proponents have been anticipating for more than a decade.
On that day, the FCC approved in-band, on-channel digital audio broadcasting as the technology U.S. stations will use to go digital. The IBOC approach maintains the AM and FM band system so familiar to U.S. consumers, and preserves the frequencies of current license-holders. Its hybrid design means stations can add a digital signal even as they continue to broadcast in analog as well for the foreseeable future.
The decision clears the way for stations to use the system developed by Ibiquity Digital Corp.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell called the decision historic, and said he is glad to see radio join other media in going digital. “I’m thrilled to see the radio wagon train get to the other side.”
Ibiquity was pleased; it had pushed the agency for a decision this month so that its receiver manufacturing partners could get IBOC radios built in time for introduction in January at the Consumer Electronics Show. Those radios will carry IBOC’s consumer brand name, HD Radio.
The company believed FCC action also would encourage further commitments from receiver makers to the format.
“It’s clear that HD Radio has arrived as a serious player,” said Ibiquity President and CEO Robert Struble after the commissioners voted in favor of IBOC at the Oct. 10 public meeting. For broadcasters, he said, “There will be a quick return on HD Radio investment and (terrestrial) radio will be able to compete with satellite radio.”
Although the commission said it is no longer considering using TV Channel 6 for digital radio use, it did not close the door on systems requiring new spectrum, should such new spectrum be identified.
The text of the Report and Order was not immediately made public, but commission officials said it allows FMs to transmit both a digital and analog signal both day and night. AMs may do so only during the day.
The AM nighttime tests undertaken by Ibiquity to satisfy concerns about how IBOC would perform on stations operating on skywaves at night continue. Ibiquity expects those to be completed by the end of the year. At that time, Ibiquity said, it would work with the National Radio Systems Committee to craft operating parameters for nighttime AM IBOC. The NRSC and Ibiquity are working on setting a technical standard for IBOC. Both groups expect the FCC to seek public comment on the standard when ready, perhaps by mid-2003.
Given differences of opinion in the industry about the power level at which daytime AM IBOC should be implemented, the FCC left that up to broadcasters. Those who want to implement AM IBOC at full power can do so; those who fear interference with a neighboring station may choose to operate at a lower power if they inform the commission of their intentions, said FCC Audio Division Chief Peter Doyle.
For the first two or three months, stations that want to begin digital transmission must file requests for Special Temporary Authorization with the FCC.
After that initial period, the FCC is expected to issue a blanket order allowing all stations to convert by simply sending the FCC a letter. The STA requirement was needed for the commission to comply with federal rule procedures.
Ibiquity had said it wanted to reach roughly 50 percent of potential listeners in its six initial rollout markets by the end of the year, or about 70 stations. But given the late time-frame, Ibiquity believes 40 to 50 stations converting in 2002 is more realistic.
Group owner Radio One said in September that it had ordered IBOC transmission equipment to convert stations in five markets. It was the first major group to do so. Like many other major group owners, it is also an investor in Ibiquity.
When asked if other radio groups had stepped forward with commitments after the FCC’s action, Struble said the company was in “deep” discussions with other owners and expected more to commit shortly.
Commissioners praised the Ibiquity Digital Corp. system for its spectral efficiency. Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Michael Copps expressed eagerness to purchase IBOC receivers.
Ibiquity Vice President of Broadcast Engineering Glynn Walden, who has been involved with efforts to find a DAB solution for the United States for more than10 years, said, “IBOC is a concept rooted in the American concept of a free over-the-air broadcast system … a concept and a technology that allows each and every broadcaster to transition from an analog world to a digital future while re-using the existing infrastructure and allocated broadcast spectrum.
“IBOC is such a compelling concept that technology was developed. With this FCC decision, those benefits are now available for broadcasters to bring the benefits of HD digital radio to the U.S. public.”
The FCC staff feels it will learn much about IBOC technology when stations start to transmit digital signals. If any interference occurs from a station that is transmitting both signals, especially interference to first-adjacent channels or to services broadcast on FM subcarriers, the commission hopes the parties would work it out.
The agency would be ready to intervene in cases where stations are unable to come to an agreement about how to solve the interference, officials said.
They said it was too soon to tell when the FCC would promulgate final IBOC rules, including operating parameters and other technical specifications.