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.