Chief Executive Officer of Northeast Public Radio gets it wrong.

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.

IBOC update

Since the FCC approved a ten fold increase in the radiated power of the digital carrier, a progress report on the digital radio rollout is in order.  The FCC report and order (MM Docket No. 99-325) gives us some background:

An original goal of the developers of the hybrid FM IBOC DAB system was replication of FM analog coverage without adversely affecting either the host analog signal or adjacent channel analog FM operations. iBiquity and several independent parties conducted extensive field and laboratory tests. Based on the National Radio Systems Committee (“NRSC”) evaluation of those test results, iBiquity requested and the NRSC approved an FM Digital ERP of one percent of FM Analog ERP (20 decibels below carrier (-20 dBc)).

And (after paying gobs of license fees and installation costs):

Many FM stations promptly commenced hybrid FM IBOC operations. Despite the rigorous testing, it soon became apparent that hybrid FM IBOC digital coverage often did not replicate analog coverage, especially in mobile and indoor environments.

Therefore (Fox, here are the keys to the hen house, knock your self out):

Based on the results of the experimental operations with increased FM Digital ERP and other studies, on June 10, 2008, a group consisting of 18 radio group owners that operate over 1,200 commercial and noncommercial educational (“NCE”) FM stations and the four largest broadcast transmission equipment manufacturers, identifying themselves as “Joint Parties,” requested (the “Joint Parties Request”) that the Commission generally increase maximum permissible FM Digital ERP10 from one percent of a station’s authorized analog ERP (-20 dBc) (1% FM IBOC Power”) to a maximum of ten percent of a station’s authorized analog ERP (-10 dBc) (“10% FM IBOC Power”).

Based on (We find these hens are delicious!):

NPR concluded that at 1% FM IBOC Power, the mobile, indoor and portable digital coverage achieved by most FM stations would not replicate analog coverage, but that at 10% FM IBOC Power most FM stations could achieve digital mobile, portable and indoor coverage levels which either met or exceeded comparable analog coverage levels.

And (in spite of numerous concerns by the public and other broadcasters) Viola:

73.404 Interim Hybrid IBOC DAB Operation.
(a) The licensee of an AM or FM station, or the permittee of a new AM or FM station which has commenced program test operation pursuant to § 73.1620, may commence interim hybrid IBOC DAB operation with digital facilities which conform to the technical specifications specified for hybrid DAB operation in the First Report and Order in MM Docket No. 99-325, as revised in the Media Bureau’s subsequent Order in MM Docket No. 99-325. FM stations are permitted to operate with hybrid digital effective radiated power equal to one percent (-20 decibels below carrier (dBc)) of authorized analog effective radiated power and may operate with up to ten percent (-10 dBc) of authorized analog effective radiated power in accordance with the procedures set forth in the Media Bureau’s Order in MM Docket No 99-325. An AM or FM station may transmit IBOC signals during all hours for which the station is licensed to broadcast.

Notice how they stuck AM nighttime operation in there too.  Now I get to hear IBOC signals over riding adjacent channel stations that used to come in clearly via skywave.  One tends to wonder if this interference is not deliberate.  Crush the small operators with interference, make their stations worthless, drive them out of business…

To help things along, iBiquity has offered to reduce their licensing fees to $5,000.00  (oops, its more like $10,500 – 12,500). These rules were put into effect on January 29, 2010.  According to the FCC data base, there are 1524 FM stations and 292 AM stations transmitting IBOC.  That breaks down to 15% of the FM stations and 6% of the AM stations.  I will post an update if there is a sudden rush to install IBOC. Still a pretty low penetration for a 10-20 year old technology.  It is likely these low numbers are the reason why both broadcast bands are still mostly listenable, at least from a technical perspective.

As the noise floor rises and the competing stations sink further and further into the mud, the audience will turn to non-static filled technologies to listen to their music and other programs.

Why am I not surprised

NPR and iBiquity has come to an agreement to screw the rest of us out of radio spectrum with a four fold increase in HD RadioTM power levels. Here comes the interference.

But hey, it’s the future, that digital stuff, because it’s better.  And if you are not on board, then you are a narrow minded backwards thinker not worthy of consideration.

The funny thing is, all of the bells and whistles and whiz bang digital do dads, Ipod song titles, and fancy acronyms do not add up to a nano fart.  If there is nothing compelling listeners to buy the HD Radios,TM it is a dead technology.  Here is a news flash, when it comes to radio listener ship,

IT’S THE PROGRAMMING, STUPID.

That has to be fixed, then the other stuff will start to make sense.

What do I know?  I’m going to go have a cold beer and put my feet up.

The lesser of two evils

If I had to pick between allowing HD RadioTM a 6 dB increase or removing the third adjacent protection for LPFM stations, I’d choose LPFM.

In tests performed by NPR, Ibiquity’s In Band On Channel (IBOC) digital radio scheme created significant interference to the first adjacent channel when running with 6% of the analog carrier power (-14 dB referenced to carrier) vs. the 1% (-20 dB referenced to carrier) currently allowed.  The NAB has would like to see -10 dB referenced to carrier or 10% of the analog carrier power.

Remember Bill Clinton’s sign during his first election, something about the economy, stupid.  In this case, it’s the Bandwidth, Stupid.  In the US and Canada, FM stations are allowed 200 kHz of spectrum to transmit their analog signals.   Analog signals include main channel mono (left plus right), and sub channels for stereo pilot (19 kHz) stereo matrix (left minus right), RDS (57 kHz) and any subcarriers in the 67-92 kHz range.

HD RadioTM radio requires 400 kHz of spectrum to transmit it’s digital carriers.  Here come those laws of nature again, you can’t fit 400 kHz bandwidth into 200 kHz of spectrum.

Ibiquity decided to try it anyway, contravening the FCC’s rules about FM broadcasting bandwidth channels which had been in place since the advent of FM broadcasting in the early 1940’s.  What they attempted to do was make the power level on the adjacent channel so low that most analog radios would not have a problem with it while there was a strong signal from another station present.  (hey buddy, how about a little of this new thing called crack?) This is known as the capture effect.

Now, Ibiquity created this whole thing to make some money.  Nothing wrong with that, this is a market economy after all.  They marketed the hell out of HD RadioTM radio, I saw them at various trade shows, they had full page advertisements in all the trade magazines, they hit the phones, it was a full court press (it’ll make you really cool, you’ll be able to do things you can do now and you’ll feel really good).  They would even reduce or waive the license fee (here, just take a little rock, try it, on me, you’ll see).

So they were able to sell a very expensive system that has significant coverage issues because of the low power levels needed to satisfy the FCC’s concerns about adjacent channel interference.  The NAB and many of the big radio groups bought in to it (gotcha, crackhead, you’re mine now).

Now, of course, those that bought into HD RadioTM radio want their investment to work, (which it doesn’t right now) so all the talk of power increases and hey, lets just disregard that pesky interference issue.  If you ignore it, eventually it will go away (along with the entire FM band).

The problems with HD RadioTM radio are:

  1. Inadequate building penetration at the current power level (1% of carrier power)
  2. Bandwidth that exceeds current channel assignments on both AM and FM frequencies.
  3. Proprietary nature of HD RadioTM‘s CODECs and licensing for second channels give Ibiquity too large a role saying how radio is broadcast in the US.  Remember, radio station licenses are granted in the public interest, the owners are trustees of the public
  4. Complete lack of public awareness.
  5. It doesn’t really improve anything anyway.

By the way, shame on NPR (again) for their corporate stance contrary to maintaining good quality radio and serving public interest.

Compared to that, LPFM is a very minor thing.  As I said before, removing the third adjacent protection will raise the noise floor in the FM band and by default cause more interference.  However, I’ll take a little more interference created by community radio stations over the complete rack and  ruin of the FM band.