December 2018
M T W T F S S
« Oct    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31  

Archives

Categories

GatesAir FLX-40 one year in

I was at the WEBE transmitter site recently and took the time to look over transmitter we installed last year:

GatesAir FLX-40 transmitter, WEBE Bridgeport, CT

GatesAir FLX-40 transmitter, WEBE Bridgeport, CT

Overall, I would say that this transmitter has been very reliable.  We had to install a UPS for the exciter and HD Radio exporter, but that is not a big deal. During the first power outage, the exciter went dark first. It took longer for the transmitter controller board to lose power, in the interim the controller turned the transmitter power all the way up. When the generator came on line 10 seconds later, the transmitter returned to operation at 41.5 KW. This, in turn, caused one of the other field engineers to freak out and nearly lose his mind (stay away from the brown acid, FYI).

I installed the UPS a few days later.

WEBE TPO 35.3 KW with HD Radio carriers on

WEBE TPO 35.3 KW with HD Radio carriers on

Transmitter power output is 35.3 KW, which is getting into the semi-serious range. The reflected power goes up when it gets warm out and goes down in colder weather.  Over the winter, it was running about 50 watts.  Even at 138 watts, that represents 0.004% reflected power. The TPO forward goes to the 6 bay, 1/2 wave spaced antenna side mounted, 470 feet (143 meters) AGL. The station covers pretty well.

WEBE Pump station

WEBE Pump station, pump is running 2/3 speed and fans are running at about 1/2 speed

Overall, I would give the liquid cooling system an A grade. The transmitter still dumps a fair amount of heat into the room from the RF combiners and PA power supplies. Most of the heat, however, ends up outdoors. Previously, we had two Bard 5 ton AC units running almost full time. Now, only one AC unit cycles on and off except for the hottest days of the year. Outside temperature when this picture was taken was 81 degrees F (27.2 C).

Next year, we will have to send a sample of the coolant off to be analyzed.

Gates FLX-40, WEBE Bridgeport, CT

Gates FLX-40, WEBE Bridgeport, CT

I have had good experiences with the GatesAir FLX/FAX series transmitters. I would recommend this to a friend.

Status of AM revitalization

It has been about five years since the AM revitalization initiative was first proposed by the FCC and about five years since the first rules changes took place.  Those rules changes included:

  1.  FM translators for AM stations
  2. Allowing stations to use MDCL (Modulation Dependent Carrier Level)
  3. Changing some of the antenna radiation efficiencies requirements
  4. Changing some of the allowable interference towards other stations requirements
  5. Loosening some rules regarding proofs, MOM, night time coverage over city of license, etc

Things that were not addressed:

  1. Receiver quality and technical advances
  2. Ambient noise levels on Medium Frequency (among other) bands
  3. HD Radio or any other digital modulation scheme

Things that were discussed then changed subsequently as a separate initiative:

  1. The main studio rule, which was eliminated for all broadcasting stations

What has been the net effect of these changes?  Has any of this revitalized AM radio?  The net effect has been approximately more of the same.  There have been many stations that have applied for and received licenses for FM translators.  Those stations, in most cases that I am aware of, receive some benefit of extra revenue because of this.  Stations with carrier power levels of 10-50 KW have taken advantage of MDCL technology to save some money on their electric bill.  Nothing wrong with that.

For stations that use a directional antenna, proofs of performance and other DA matters with the FCC have become slightly easier.  Medium Frequency (MF) directional antennas are very large, require a lot of land, are expensive to build, license and maintain.  I know of several stations which have downgraded from a class B station with a directional antenna to a class D station with a single tower and greatly reduced night time power.   Those downgraded stations certainly benefit from an FM translator.

I have heard from more than one AM station owner who says after four years, they are going to “turn in their AM license and just keep the FM.”  I am sure that they are not informed regarding translator rules.  Perhaps, however, the FCC will allow this in the future; a sort of back door commercial low power FM station classification.

The AM band zenith occurred in November of 1991, when there where 4990 licensed AM stations in the United States.  As of June 30, 2018, the total stands at 4633.  That is a decline of 357 stations.  There are currently 90 AM stations listed as silent.  That represents a decline of approximately 9 percent or less than 1/2 of one percent per year.

The last number of AM stations actually transmitting HD Radio that I found was approximately 110, which differs from the iBiquity (and FCC) number of 240.  The FCC data base includes stations which are currently dark, or stations which where transmitting HD Radio at one time but have since turned it off.  Either way, it is a small percentage of licensed stations.  As of this time, AM HD Radio appears to be a non-starter.  In other parts of the world, Medium Frequency DRM seems to be doing well.  The difference seems to be that the DRM operation is all digital and the digital carriers have a much higher power level than that of the hybrid AM HD Radio being used here.

Of those 4633 standard broadcast stations, approximately 260 belong to iHeart radio, Cumulus owns approximately 120 and Townsquare owns approximately 80.   That accounts for 460 stations.  The remaining 4000 or so stations currently on the air are owned by medium sized corporations or individual owners.  The reason for the distinction; I have noticed that the large corporate owners tend to concentrate resources and effort on those licenses that will make the best return, e.g. FM stations.  Of course, there are a few exceptions to that trend, often in major markets.

Of those 4000 or so remaining AM stations, most seem to be treading water.  They are making enough money to stay on the air.  There are a few AM stations that are doing remarkably well.  Those are the ones with primarily  local content.  The vast majority of AM stations are running some type of syndicated talk.  News/talk and sports radio are the two most common formats.  Conservative news/talk seems to be the bread and butter.  Liberal news talk has been tried, but none have succeeded.

Last May, the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.  That federal law prevented gambling on outcomes of professional and college sports games.  With the overturn of that rule, individual states can now legalize sports betting.  It will be interesting to see what states allow legalized sports gambling and whether that has any effect on the various sports radio formats.  I can see where individuals and odds makers may want to get good inside information regarding team dynamics and so on.  The sports network that can furnish such information may be in a good position to carve out a niche.

Music can and does sound good on AM when it is done correctly.  There is a great misconception that AM fidelity is poor.  That is not necessarily so.  There are a good many AM receivers these days which have much better bandwidth than the previous generation receivers.  I am noticing that car radios in particular sound much better.  Yes, there are still problems with electrical noise and night time interference.  There are still technological improvements that can be made for analog AM on the receiver side.

In summary; the revitalization efforts have benefited some AM stations in some areas.  The truth is, that many AM stations have been let go for so long that there is no saving them.  Other AM stations that are still viable are making a go of it.  In nautical terms; there is six feet of water in the hold, the pumps are working and the ship is not sinking… for now.

iBiquity sale to DTS

DTS, Inc (NQ:DTSI) is to acquire iBiquity for $172M USD.  This was the headline about the middle of last week.  With that announcement, we get to see some of iBiquity’s financials; revenue of $40-50 million this year with a margin of 30-36%.

My question is, who or what is DTS?  DTS was initially known as Digital Theater Systems, Inc.  They specialize in digital surround sound technology, by developing or acquiring companies that created various CODECs and surround sound technology.

35mm film audio macro

An image of 35 mm film showing four audio formats, from left to right: SDDS (blue area to the left of the sprocket holes), Dolby Digital (grey area between the sprocket holes with the Dolby “Double-D”), analog optical sound (the two white lines to the right of the sprocket holes), and the DTS time code (the dashed line to the far right).  The DTS time code syncs picture to a CD-ROM that contains the surround sound sound track.

DTS continues to develop surround sound technology and makes money by licensing that technology to consumer and professional audio clients.  According to their 2015 Q2 financials, they are on track to make $140-145 million this year with a 25-30% margin.

My next question is, what does this mean for HD Radio?  It is much harder to answer this question, but here are some general observations:

  • DTS is a publicly traded company.  Financials and other information are a matter of public record.  It seems likely that the operation will be more transparent.
  • DTS operates with higher revenue and lower margins.
  • DTS has a high interest in mobile markets; devices and dashboards.
  • DTS has a history of continued development and marketing of technology it owns.

There are a couple of different scenarios possible; the first is business as usual. I think this is the least likely situation.  IBiquity as a company and HD Radio as a technology basically flat lined ten years ago.  A successful company like DTS would not likely purchase something that does not have growth potential.

Second possibility, DTS will keep the same licensing structure, but upgrade the HD Radio technology.  From a audiophile’s perspective; HD-1 sounds good, HD-2, 3, and 4 channels not so much.  This is especially true as more channels are added and the same size pie (aggregate digital bandwidth) gets divvied up into smaller and smaller pieces.  One area where HD Radio could shine is to get rid of the HD2-4 channels and create an IP multicast system.  IPv6 has greatly improved multicast performance which might enable a free data stream download, minimal data back haul via mobile data for an interactive, low data usage digital experience.  That would free up a lot of translators.

Third possibility, DTS will reduce the licensing fees for broadcasters and consumers and accept a lower margin on existing technology.  DTS will use HD Radio as a route to get their technology into dashboards, which is where they see their future profits.  Remember, the self driving car is only a few years away and mobile entertainment will be all the next rage.

As far as AM HD Radio goes, I don’t see anything happening with that.  Medium wave broadcast channels do not offer enough bandwidth to facilitate reliable digital transmission.

In any case, for better or for worse, change is coming to terrestrial radio.

Norway says “Goodbye, FM”

Norway will switch off its national FM networks in 2017, according to the Ministry of Culture announcement.  In the place of analog FM will be DAB.  The aim is to have the migration to DAB completed by December of 2017.  According to the article, approximately 54 percent of households and 20 percent of automobiles have DAB radios.  What is left unsaid is the 46 percent of households and 80 percent of automobiles that do not have DAB capable receivers.

I am sure that in the ensuing year and a half to two years, those numbers will change somewhat.  It still seems to me that there will be many people who will likely not have a DAB radio in their car before the analog switch off.

Judging by the comments on the Slash dot story, many are not happy with this decision.  Perhaps the most telling comment is this:

This is just Norway going off on its own crusade urged on by commercial interests of 10+ new channels, fuck whether it makes sense to throw out millions of radios… I expect this to lead to a massive interest in building out 3G/4G coverage as ex-FMers give DAB the middle finger.

Yup, that sounds about right.

I don’t know much about radio in Norway, but it if is anything like radio here, good programming trumps technical do-dads and and fancy gimmickry.

HD Radio development Stasis

I have been working on an HD Radio installation these last few days.  This particular installation was manufactured by Broadcast Electronics.  Some 13 years into the HD Radio development cycle and the implementation still seems like a kluge to me.  To get some idea; to transmit a digital HD Radio with added sub-channels, the following equipment is needed:

  • HD Data importer, off the shelf computer with a sound card and specific software from iBquity.  This is used to import the audio for the HD-2 and HD-3/4 channels.  Runs on Windows (Win 7), Linked to the exporter via IP ethernet
  • HD Radio exporter, another specialized computer with a sound card.  Frames the HD Radio data and adds PID, etc.  Runs on Mandrake Linux, communicates with the exciter via data connection.
  • HD Radio exciter; like other exciters, generates RF and modulates it.
  • HD Radio transmitter; essentially an FM transmitter designed to run as a linear amplifier.

The HD Transmitter part can come in several configurations, including low level combining, high level combining or using a separate antenna for digital and analog signals.

Broadcast Electronics HD Radio transmission system

Broadcast Electronics HD Radio transmission system

None of this is news, of course.  My point is, after ten years, there does not seem to be any further development in HD Radio technology.  In the mean time, competitors are not standing still.  The mobile wireless industry has evolved several times during the same time period; 3G, 4G and LTE have been successfully deployed and widely adopted by mobile phone users.  Truly, mobile data is the real competition to terrestrial broadcasting.

The HD Radio transmission process is an overly complicated patchwork of hardware and software.  The importer in particular seems substandard.  It’s function is to run a bunch of small programs, each doing some small part of the importing process.  The web-admin used Internet Explorer, who uses Internet Explorer anymore?

Since the HD Radio inception, little or no further development seems to have taken place.  There are features, such as album art, program data, traffic data, etc but the system interface is weak, the hardware clunky, the data paths fragile, the operating system outdated, the typical installation is a compromise between cost and available floor space at the transmitter site.

HD Radio is also expensive to deploy and proprietary.  There is little compelling reason to listen to HD-1 channels because the programming is identical to the main analog channel.  HD-2, 3 and 4 channels seem to be mostly used to generate translator feeds, which again, are available with an analog radio.  This use of HD Radio actually damages uptake because, If all the HD Radio sub channels are available on FM analog frequencies, then why even bother with an HD Radio receiver?

Thus the forces at work in the development of HD Radio seem to have reached equilibrium:

Consumer apathy + expensive deployment = 16% uptake on FM and 6% uptake on AM1

The digital radio roll out has been stuck at those levels for many years.  Unless something changes, FM HD Radio will be limited to translator program origination and distribution.  AM HD Radio will go the way of AM Stereo.

1: FCC data on HD Radio deployment; 1,803 of 10,727 FM stations and 299 of 4,708 AM stations have installed HD Radio as of December 31, 2014.

AM revitalization comments

I have been reading the comments regarding the FCC’s NPRM (13-249).  Clearly, many people are interested in keeping the AM broadcasting band both active and relevant.  Some of these suggestions have merit, but are unlikely to be adopted by the FCC.  Others are viable and could alleviate at least a few of the technical shortcomings of the AM band.  The rest fall along expected positions.  Here is a brief rundown:

  • Clear Channel, iBiquity: Allow stations to transmit in all digital mode.  Likelihood: Possible.  The hybrid version of AM HD Radio has been a failure on several fronts; added interference to adjacent channels, self interference, poor adoption, wonky CODECs, etc.  However, letting stations choose to broadcast in all digital AM HD Radio may decide the issue once and for all.  As long as the all digital carriers fall within the current analog channels, this would be fine.  Actually, I would add that station transmitting in all digital be allowed to choose DRM as well as HD Radio
  • REC Networks, MMTC: Move AM stations to former TV channels 5 and 6.  Likelihood: Unlikely.  It would be a neat solution, however, there are currently many full and low power TV stations still using those frequencies.
  • Clear Channel, SBE, MMTC, Crawford, et al: Allow AM stations a special translator filing window.  Likelihood: Almost assured.  This has been broached by the FCC itself.  I would add that Class D and Class C stations be given priority.
  • SBE, du trial, Lundin and Rackely, MMTC et. al: Remove the “ratchet rule,” reduce antenna efficiency requirements and city of license contour requirements.  Likelihood: probable.  Over the years, the FCC’s rules and regulations designed to help AM broadcasting’s technical product have done the opposite in many cases.  This is especially true of the “ratchet rule.”
  • SBE, du Trial, Lundin and Rackely, MMTC: MDCL (Modulation Depended Carrier Level) Likelihood: Possible.  MDCL does not do much to improve AM signal quality, but it can save the station owner some money on the electricity bill.
  • Alabama Broadcaster’s Association, et al: Better FCC enforcement.  Likelihood: Not very.  This is another area were interference and AM noise problems can be fixed.  Given Ajit Pai’s desire for “non-regulatory” relief, stepped up enforcement seems to be a non-starter.
  • Hatfield and Dawson: Eliminate substandard AM stations.  Likelihood: Not very.  Getting rid of substandard stations and let the remaining AM stations enjoy a little breathing room is actually a big step in the right direction.  H&D notes that the FCC should petition congress for tax relief for those stations that choose to surrender their licenses.  Unfortunately, it does not appear likely that the FCC, congress and the current station owners would go for it.
  • du Treil, Lundin and Rackely: Do away with skywave protection for class A stations  Likelihood: Possible.  The argument goes; skywave listening represents a very small number of mostly hobbyists (AM DXers) as other, better methods for program distribution exist for serious listeners.  Sad but true.
  • du Treil, Lundin and Rackely: No more new AM stations.  Likelihood: Possible.  There is a cogent argument to be made regarding the overcrowding of the AM band.  Stopping any further crowding is a good idea.
  • SBE, Cohen, Dippell and Everist, et al: Tighten regulations on electrical noise emitters.  Likelihood: Unlikely.  The FCC does not have the mettle to tighten regulations against powerful manufacturing and technology lobbies.
  • iBiquity: Do not let anything get in the way of the HD Radio rollout.  Likelihood: Is it possible to get in the way of something that is standing still?

Talking amongst engineers and AM broadcasters, many of these ideas have merit.  The real question is, will any of this bring more listeners?

CES 2014 and the Digital Radio question

I have been busy of late, however, still keeping abreast of the news of the day.  Along with that, CES 2014 wrapped up recently.  No huge developments, especially when it comes to Broadcasting.  However, there was one item of interest; the updated technical specifications of IEEE 802.11ac.

It is of interest here because of the implications of the mobile/portable data developments and their impact on traditional AM and FM broadcasting. The new specification calls for 1.2 Gbp/s per device in the initial release, increasing that throughput to 6 Gbp/s in later releases.  These data rates are for overall transmission, including the WiFi overhead.  Actual usable application data (layer 5-7) would be about 20 to 30 percent less.  Even so, 900 Mbp/s is a phenomenal data rate.  Truely I say to you; this is the future of digital broadcasting.  HD Radio™; it may well prove that the “HD” stood for “Huge Distraction.”

The new 802.11ac specification uses MU-MIMO, high density modulation, larger channel bandwidths, and beamforming technology in the 5 GHz WiFi spectrum.  Of course, the question is, at what distances will this system work?  If it is like conventional WiFi, then 100-200 feet is about all that can be expected.  However, there are also many people interested in wireless broadband (WiMAX) service as an alternative to traditional wired ISPs. For that application, having many outdoor 802.11ac nodes connected by a backbone could potentially blanket a city or campus with free high speed wireless data.

Example of cjdns network

Example of cjdns network

Along the same lines, there are many people involved in creating mesh networks of various types; be they ad-hoc mobile networks, darknets, bitclouds, etc. Mesh networking is a very interesting topic, for me at least.  The network protocols are getting better and more secure.  WiFi hardware is becoming less expensive and more reliable.  As more and more people put effort into developing protocols like cjdns, local mesh networks will become wide spread, unless they are outlawed.  You know; because of teh terrorism!!1!!

As it stands today, I can drive for two hours in mostly rural upstate NY and CT streaming my favorite radio programs and have nearly seamless hand offs and very few dropouts.  This is on my three year old, beat up 3G HTC android phone sitting in the passenger seat of my car.

Digital Radio is here, it is simply not the In Band On Channel system that legacy broadcaster’s have chosen.

A few updates

UPDATE: I notice that Radio World has a little star rating system on their articles. According to the rating, twenty one people think I suck… That is okay, but when I started looking around at all of the other articles on the website, I noticed most have but one or two votes.  It seems odd to me that my little opinion piece would have so many negative votes, especially in light of the e-mails, phone calls and personal interactions I have received supporting my position. 

Perhaps a few of you could run over there, read the article then objectively decide what you think… Here is the link: AM Efforts Should Include Tech Solutions

I am deeply immersed in all things networking, yet again. I regret the sparse posts, but there are a few things of note:

  1. It appears the the WYFR shortwave site in Okeechobee has been sold to the operators of WRMI (Radio Miami International).  This is a good turn of events for shortwave broadcasting.  WRMI programmed mostly to the Caribbean and were difficult to hear in these parts.
  2. Nielsen Radio, formerly Arbitron, says it will increase the sample size for the PPM program.  This is good, larger sample size means better accuracy and fewer extrapolation related errors and strange rating spikes.
  3. I published an commentary in Radio World Commentary: AM Efforts Should Include Tech Solutions. What do you think? Should the industry be looking at something other than HD Radio?
  4. Then, from across the pond there is this:

    Which is a digital radio promotion from the BBC. It seems Great Brittan is trying to force an all digital transition. A glimpse of things to come?

  5. In spite of the lack of posts, the blog continues to grow, averaging 550 to 600 page views per day with about 180 RSS subscribers.  As far as content goes, I can assume more of the same will suffice.

As time becomes available, I will post more.

Pai says “No fighting!”

In the putsch to revitalize AM, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai advises that it would be best if we did not argue about solutions.  Actually what was said was this:

On the other hand, if too many broadcasters allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good, our efforts could be doomed by infighting.

That is well and good, so long as the proposed solution does not make things worse.  I would posit that worse is already the enemy of the good, so any proposal that would make things worse should be protested vigorously.

I have written quite a bit about AM, its relevance and possible revitalization.  There is no one sized fits all solution to the problems facing AM broadcasters.  In the final equation, stations should be judged on their viability as a business and service to the community.  Those that fail to measure up should turn in their licenses.

Update: And so it begins. The narrative is already being shaped, as Darryl Parks (original post has been removed) has found out.  After posting in his blog a few comments on the FCC’s revitalization efforts, he was excoriated by several high profile broadcasters calling his comments “Beyond not helpful.”  For those not versed in double speak, that means it is harmful.  While Parks may not have gotten all the technical jargon exactly right, his points are valid and are in agreement with the widely accepted laws of physics.  I know, I know, quoting science is dull and boring, something that conspiracy theorists are well practiced with.

Now, SHUT UP AND GET BACK IN LINE

Stay sharp, do not be fooled

I am wondering what is going on with the HD Radio roll out these days. Particularly the all digital AM conversion scheme being bantered about so often last spring. Not much is being discussed publicly about that or the AM revitalization.  I have found FCC Commissioner Clyburn’s remarks at this week’s NAB Confab interesting.  HD Radio is paid lip service here:

There are hurdles: if broadcasters do not broadly embrace the HD technology and the multicasting and other enhancements that it makes possible, listeners will have few incentives to buy digital receivers. Likewise, if no consumers own digital receivers, then there is no reason to broadcast in digital.
But I’m not worried. More than 15 million digital receivers have been sold so far, and that number will only rise. Thirty-three auto manufacturers include or plan to include digital receivers in their cars, and those receivers are standard equipment in over 80 models. This will dramatically increase the number of digital receivers in the coming years.

But in the solutions for AM broadcasters, HD Radio is not mentioned at all.  What is put forward as a six (actually five) step plan to revitalize AM radio turns out to be some rearranging of the deck chairs and little more. Cliff notes version for the FCC’s AM revitalization:

  1. Open a one time filing window for AM license holders to acquire an FM translator
  2. Relaxing community coverage rules for AM licensing allowing greater flexibility for transmitter siting
  3. Eliminating the “Ratchet Rule” used in night time allocation studies for new facilities
  4. Permitting more widespread use of MCDL technologies by eliminating STA requirements
  5. Reducing minimum field strength requirements by twenty five percent allowing the use of shorter towers

While those options may save an AM license holder some money, none of them do anything to improve the technical quality of AM broadcasting.  Several of them (#2, 4 and 5) will, in fact if widely implemented, reduce signal levels over cities of license, making electrical noise and interference problems more prevalent. This is a step in the wrong direction.

These points are basically a rehash of some to the MMTC’s (Minority Media Telecommunication Council) ideas for a radio rescue first bantered about in 2009.

This demonstrates that the NAB and the FCC are not at all serious about revitalizing the AM band but merely marking time and making it look good until the final transmitter is switched off.

AM licensees are on their own, but all is not lost.  I have noticed several successful stand alone AM station that are not only surviving but thriving.  The common thread in these station is good local programming.  On the technical side of things; a well maintained plant with good quality audio feeding a properly operating transmitter and antenna array will go a long way to providing good service to the city of license.

Axiom


A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19

...radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
~Alan Weiner

Free counters!