I was listening to locally produced program “The Media Project” on Northeast Public Radio this afternoon when Alan S. Chartock began speaking about HD radio®. It was particularly interesting to me because it became very apparent that he really had no idea of what he was talking about. What is more interesting and the point of this post is that Dr. Chartock is the CEO of Northeast Public Radio and thus should have a thorough understanding of the technology he is promoting.
He began by saying that most broadcasters where rushing to install IBOC (HD radio®) equipment. According to the FCC.gov web site, there are currently 1,542 FM stations out of 9,630 total FM stations broadcasting in IBOC. That represents approximately sixteen percent, which is a rather low number. Further, many of those stations are National Public Radio member stations which received very generous grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (e.g. your tax dollars) to purchase and install the said digital radio equipment from the sole manufacture and licenser of IBOC radio in the US, Ibiquity. Incidentally, there are 292 out of 4,790 AM stations currently broadcasting in IBOC, or roughly six percent. Those numbers have been relatively static over the last several years. It could hardly be called a rush to install.
I have a distinct problem with this scenario. As Keep public radio public noted:
It is categorically wrong for public money to be used to subsidize a monopoly such as iBiquity, proprietary licensor of HD radio. Millions of dollars of funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have been used to promote the spread of HD radio by grants to local public radio stations for conversion to a substandard IBOC system, which not only fails to deliver on claims of superior quality but also interferes with signals from adjacent stations. Even FCC Commissioner Michael Copps admitted, “Everybody involved pretty much admitted from the outset that the digital radio initiative is all about giving the broadcast industry more avenues to make money rather than actually improving radio from the perspective of the listener.”
Secondly, Alan stated that there is no analog radio anymore, “It’s all digital.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I suspect that Dr. Chartock is simply ignorant of the technology in spite of his title as CEO. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with IBOC technology. No one in a position of authority seems to understand what it is all about. While the technical spec looks better for main channel IBOC vs. analog FM if one is considering total frequency response only. Unfortunately, to attain that 20 kHz spec, some very aggressive bit reduction is required to make the digital signal conform with the alloted bandwidth. A well designed and maintained analog FM station will sound as good as any IBOC signal out there. Add to that, the difficulty receiving the IBOC signal in mobile environments or lack of building penatration of the IBOC signal, and the digital carrier is far inferior to the analog stereo system that has been in use since 1961.
Most broadcasters see it as an opportunity for second program channel on the HD-2 carrier. While that is one advantage of the technology, doing so means a revenue sharing agreement with Ibiquity. If the main channels use aggressive bit reduction schemes, the second and third channel use bit reduction butchery. If the audio quality of Sirius Satellite radio sounded bad, this sounds worse. The quality of such secondary data streams is so low and I would think that organizations such as NPR and CPB, both of which pride them selves on the quality of their product would not want to degrade it thus.
Finally, IBOC (HD radio®) is not the same as HDTV. On the TV side of things the HD stands for “High Definition.” This notes an actual improvement to TV technology by increased picture size and screen definition. On the radio side of things the HD stands for nothing, it is merely two letters that Ibiquity chose to represent its IBOC system. The fact that the letters are “H” and “D” is a coincidence.