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The NAB’s AM study

LBA Technology AM antenna systems, RF
shielding, and test equipment

As has been widely reported in other places, the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) has completed its study of AM Radio and recommendations to improve the service.  The NAB has taken a cautious, if not somewhat paternalistic approach of holding the report while they review their options.  It seems that the technical nature of such a document would not be understood by us mere mortals.

Some of the AM improvement options that have been bantered about in the past include:

  • Moving AM stations to the vacant frequencies of TV Channels 5 and 6, see this.
  • Reducing the number of AM stations on the band, see this.
  • Increasing transmission power of AM stations, see this.
  • Converting AM stations to all digital modulation, see this.

There may be a few other options considered also.

It does not take too much analytical prowess to deduce where the NAB’s proposal is going.  My prediction is that they will be promoting an all digital “solution” to the AM broadcasting issue using iBquity’s HD Radio product.  I base this prediction on the fact that all of the major radio members of the NAB (Clear Channel, Cumulus, CBS, et al) are heavily invested in the iBquity product.  For this reason, the NAB will find (or has found) that digital broadcasting in the medium wave band will solve all of the current perceived problems with AM and everyone should embrace the technology.

A few numbers to note:

  • iBiquity and the FCC data base reports that there are currently either 270 or 299 AM station licensed to operate with HD Radio. Other sources note that several of these stations have been turned off and the actual number using HD Radio is 215.
  • There are 4754 AM stations licensed by the FCC.
  • Currently HD Radio is transmitted 4-6% of the AM stations in the country.
  • It costs $25,000 US to license a single HD Radio station through iBiquity.  They are, however, discounting that to between $11,500 and 13,500 and have a convenient payment plan (limited time offer, expires December 31, 2012, FCC license fees are extra).
  • It costs between $75,000 and $150,000 to equip and or modify a single AM station with HD Radio gear.

Unless iBiquity drops all patent claims and licensing fees to use its product, an FCC mandate for AM stations to install HD Radio would be skating dangerously close to corporate fascism (AKA Mussolini Fascism or Corporatism) as one corporate entity would then control broadcast radio by licensing its modulation scheme.  And no, the patent is not going to expire.

Digital modulation schemes used in the medium wave band have their own set of technical issues.  HD Radio is not the panacea for AM broadcasting’s self inflicted woes.

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12 comments to The NAB’s AM study

  • While it might make sense to reorganize AM service, if the band is moved from it’s current position, it’ll be the official end of an era of radio that has stretched from the technology’s inception through the present day. My antique radio receivers from as far back as the 1920s and 1930s can still tune into the same AM broadcast band as when they were originally invented, and it would be a sad for them to fall silent after nearly 100 years.

  • mr. mike

    It’s all just desperation because the NAB invested heavily in digital broadcasting and nobody wants it. They would be better off giving some of the AM spectrum to low power community radio (1-20 watts) and calling it a day.

  • Maybe it long past the time for the majority of AM/FM stations to tell the NAB to stick it where the sun don’t shine and starve them to death, make them get by with
    just the dirty money from Clear Channel, CBS and the other investors in both nightmare systems. To those who are IBOC shut it off when your license period expires.
    Put the bastards out of business. The NAB is no longer the wonderful institution we all knew and loved. The NAB has been bought and paid for by a few major special interests (much like the US government)and everyone else should just shut up and get in line (like the Vonage Stepford TV commercial, “We all bundle”….”Puppy” There is nothing lacking in good quality well engineered analog, not like the HDTV picture improvement. IBOC has so many flaws its hard to know where to begin. If Digital must happen it should be a completely new system with AM/FM parity in a new band with if necessary multi-powered classes of signals to appease the major investors. If the desecration of the AM and FM bands continue with 4000 more LPFM signals their investemnts are going to be in toilet in the near future
    Do not support the NAB or IBOB fees they don’t give a rats ass about YOU!

  • George Arroyo

    You can have the most wonderful radio programming in the world but when summer thundertorms start in Florida you can’t stand listening to even 50 Kws. AM’s, your finger punches up FM or satellite radio so fast you don’t even see it go by. If it is a programming problem why are AM’s moving to FM?. Whatever solution is implemented most be able to maintain current service until the new one develops. How about granting HD channels to AM’s on existing FM’s, there is a quick solution that requires minimum effort.

  • “So, at what point does it become our civic duty to use analog over the air broadcasting to serve our local communities, irrespective of whether our station is licensed?” – that is what I blogged after reading this post.

    I am with Mr. Mike – ” They would be better off giving some of the AM spectrum to low power community radio (1-20 watts) and calling it a day.” – amen to that!

  • Zach Dauph

    I think that the conversation about AM low-power community radio ignores the sheer cost of serving a community. I’m talking about not only the physical plant, but the personnel resources needed. Community service takes a ton of resources, and I just don’t see how adding MORE stations will help in any way.

    I’ve long criticized people who have predicted the death of either AM or FM…. however, I think the writing is on the wall for AM. I don’t think any type of programming or any type of publicity or marketing could bring people back. I think we’ve reached a point of no return. From a nostalgic point of view it’s a bummer, but AM had a hell of a run, as did newspapers.

  • George Arroyo

    How about granting the new FM third adjacent channels to AM’s.The 100 watt FM’s is not a good idea unless the community served is microscopic. Newspapers are given a chance to survive by going digital, Newsweek just did.

  • 1. People need to let go of the “old”.
    2. I’m a fan of doing an all digital carrier. NOT iBiquity.
    Some of the advantages of this is to split the carrier, like we do no FM HD, into multiple channels, opening the door to small broadcasters to service various communities. (foreign language comes to mind.)
    3. NOT iBiquity. Did I mention that?

    Yes, the cost will be great for those who wish to invest in it. Yes, it will take time to covert. Yes, there are technical issues to overcome. BUT, there must be some step forward in preserving the band and creating an outlet for programming if there seems to be a demand for it. Ah, the question of demand. Another story.

    Thanks for posting this blog. I am glad that you raise the proper questions.

  • Paul Thurst

    @Zach, you are correct, a community oriented station can be expensive to run using the traditional radio model. It depends on what type of programming the station airs; things like High School football can be done with volunteers in cooperation with the High School. Town board meetings may make for some boring radio in the traditional sense, but there is a station around here that runs them gavel to gavel and it is a very popular show. Local music, local events, community history, church services, etc can all be run by volunteers. It takes a massive effort to coordinate all of that, but it can be done.

    @Bill, I agree with you on the let go of the “old” as long as there is something else viable to move to. The problem that I have with all digital is the interference to analog stations in the same band. It would be better to block of a segment of the spectrum and make an all digital service there. Unfortunately, the FCC took the position several years ago that it “owns” the radio spectrum and can “sell” it to the highest bidder. That is great for big business, but where does it leave the small businesses and indeed the average citizen who now has to subscribe to an expensive data plan or a satellite service to listen to good music? Electromagnetic spectrum should not be sold no more so than the government should sell sunlight or air.

  • mr. mike

    I know it’s probably too late but I wanted to reply to some of the commenters on my community radio idea. You can run a small station with a small staff, some of them volunteers, some of them paid. I have seen it done; a good example would be WFMU. I don’t know where Zach Dauph lives, but there are large areas of the US that are under-served by radio, either in the AM or FM bands. I picked LPAM over LPFM because the signal travels farther on lower power, many areas have a lot more open space on the AM band, and finally because AM radio is the most ubiquitous mode out there – everybody has a radio that can pick up that band. I disagree with the Newsweek analogy; the Internet and digital AM/FM are two different things. One is a vast computer network and the other is an attempt to create sub-frequencies inside an existing transmission while creating a cleaner audio. The only problem with that method is that you have to buy a new, more expensive radio to get those sub-channels but it interferes with the existing analog stations. I agree with Paul Thurst’s “digital block” idea, but like him I know it won’t be done.

    Something has to be done with the AM band, but I hate to think it will be mostly abandoned or auctioned off for wireless internet or some other crappy fate. Community LPAM would be a good use for parts of that band depending on how much empty space is there in each town or market.

  • Herb/WR9H

    Digital AM radio is a solution without a problem. Ask shortwave broadcasters how well digital radio works and you will get the following reply: “The listeners refuse to buy new receivers” and “we are trapped with a single modulation scheme”.

    We are going through a digital voice “revolution” in amateur radio. It escapes me how we will increase use when NO ONE will buy new MORE expensive receivers.

    Finally, try to listen to a weak signal using a digital voice mode: you will hear NOTHING!

    73
    Herb/WR9H

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