Comparison: Over the air listening on FM vs. streaming audio on Android phone

I have had my HTC Android phone for just about a year now, which is enough time to learn the device’s strengths and weaknesses.  I have done a fair amount of listening to audio, watching youtube videos and playing .mp3’s to give me some idea of the technical quality and operational issues.  Like anything else, these are general observations.  Some radio station’s streams sound better than other due to the effort those stations put into audio quality.

The listening test was done with a set of Sony earbuds, which sound far better than the small speaker built into the phone.  For ease in streaming audio, I used the TuneIn Radio application for Android by TuneIn Inc.  For this test, I only listened to FM broadcast stations, both streaming and over the air.

The over the air tuner is the stock factory radio in my 1997 Jeep Cherokee.  I would rate the radio average in every way.  The actual tests were done driving around on interstate highways and other major roadways.  There were a few instances where I had to give up on the Android phone due to traffic and driving considerations.

My Android phone has an FM tuner installed in it, however, it is really useless.  I get only local stations, and then their audio is all hissy and for the most part unlistenable.  The HTC FM tuner uses the headphone wire for an antenna, which may be a part of the problem.

Here is a chart of my observations:

Category evaluated Analog FM radio Streaming via Android
Overall Station Selection Only those stations that can be received Any station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Varity of interesting programming Only those receivable signals which limits it to a few well programmed stations, the rest being garbage Almost unlimited, world wide*
Available formats Only those stations that can be received Any station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Ease of use Can press the preset or scan buttons on radio without taking eyes off the road* Requires squinting at a small screen and pressing several little boxes to get to the desired station
Annoying commercial avoidance See above on preset and scan buttons* Very difficult to change stations quickly
Quality of sound Good to excellent, depending on the station’s signal strength* Fair to good, depending on the bit rate and network congestion, some stations sound very good and some can sound very bad
Drop outs Occasional picket fencing with distant stations, otherwise, non-existent* Varies depending on location, can be quite annoying, especially in mobile environment.  App also occasionally locks up and needs to be restarted
Expense Free, radio came with the vehicle, no paid data service needed* Requires data plan with smart phone, some plans cap data amounts, can be fairly expensive
Overall enjoyment Good Good

*Wins category.

I am having a difficult time assigning the overall enjoyment as well as an over all winner.  One the one hand, it was very cool, driving down I-84 in Danbury, CT listening to Howlin’ Wolf on New Orleans’ non-commercial Jazz station, WWOZ.  On the other hand, it was a right pain in the ass to get to that point, in rush hour traffic.  By the way WWOZ’s web stream is excellent, audio wise.

From a safety and ease of use, the FM radio in the Jeep wins hands down, I just don’t know how many more times I can listen to the same Led Zeppelin song on i95 (that used to be I-95, frankly I thought Steve Jobs copyrighted the lower case i).

The drop outs were also a concern, mostly taking place in on the section of I-84 going through Putnam County, NY.  I don’t know if my cell carrier needs to beef up it’s data coverage in that area, or if there were just a great many users on the network checking their e-mail, etc.

If they could sort out the ease of operation problem and get rid of the drop outs, streaming audio over HTC Android would win hands down.


The 75th anniversary of FM broadcasting

On November 6th, 2010, WA2XMN will once again take to the airwaves from Alpine, NJ on 42.8 MHz.  Beginning at 12 noon, EDT, the station will rebroadcast the 2005 commemorative broadcast.  WA2XMN holds an experimental license which expires in 2015 for the purpose of recreating Armstrong’s original Yankee Network.

I am not sure if they will be using the GE Phasitron transmitter or not.

Armstrong Tower, Alpine, NJ

The Armstrong Tower is located just off of the Palisades Interstate Parkway, on a bluff west of the Hudson River.  After the World Trade Center site was lost on 9/11, all of the NY City TV stations relocated there until permanent facilities could be build at the Empire State building.  Empire had always been the home to most of the NYC FM’s except public station WNYC, which was also on WTC #1.

Lots of interesting pictures and history on the Columbia University blog, here, here and here.

For those interested in the history of FM broadcasting, Empire of the Air by Tom Lewis is a great read.

HD radio 2010 = FM radio 1950, (not)

I see this statement being made on various forums, blogs and other places.  As some would like to believe, the problem with HD radio is that people don’t like change. A Look at the early days of FM radio in the 1950’s is a good example of this.  FM radio took decades to catch on, HD Radio is no different.  Currently, HD Radio is experiencing “growing pains” and the occasional “bump in the road.”

Except; no, not really.

Here is a side by side comparison:

Problem/issue FM radio 1950 HD radio 2010
Implementation of technology A new band was created and new radios containing the old (AM) and new FM band were manufactured. During the experimental phase (1937-47), the frequencies were between 42-50 MHz. This changed to 88-108 MHz in 1947. Uptake on new radios was slow due to a frequency shift. Existing AM and FM frequencies were utilized using “Hybrid” mode.  This entailed changing existing channel bandwidths arbitrarily.  New receivers with the HD Radio chipset needed to receive broadcasts.
Funding FM radio was implemented by broadcasters who, for the most part, bore the brunt of the costs themselves. The CPB has granted millions of tax payer dollars to public radio stations to implement HD radio with most of that money going to one company, the owner of the proprietary technology.  To date, NPR stations are the single largest user segment of HD radio.
Creation of interference FM broadcasting created no interference to any other broadcasting station when it was rolled out HD radio has created many interference problems, especially on the AM band at night, where skywave propagation makes adjacent channel stations bear the brunt of exceeded bandwidths.  FM is prone to co-carrier interference from higher digital power levels created to solve poor reception issues in addition to adjacent channel interference to adjacent FM broadcasters from exceeded bandwidths.
Lack of consumer awareness or interest Consumers were generally aware of FM radio, however, the FCC created a major stir when forcing FM broadcasters to move from their original frequency band of 42-50 MHz to 88-108 MHz. This move rendered obsolete many FM radios and caused hard feelings amount early FM radio fans. Consumers generally unaware of HD.  Those that are become disappointed with the lack of additional programming choices and poor receiver performance
Technical reception problems FM stations began broadcasting with low power levels and horizontally polarized antennas.  Radio was not yet a mobile medium.  Many FM listeners needed to install outdoor antennas on their homes to get reception.  Radio listeners were willing to undertake this for good reception. HD power levels are less than needed to have reliable reception in buildings and mobile listening environments. A 6 to 10 dB increase has not effectively been implemented nor solved the problem
Audio quality FM broadcasting is markedly superior to AM broadcasting in the areas of noise reduction and fidelity. HD radio offers a slight improvement to “CD quality” which is hard for the average listener to tell apart from typical analog FM.  AM offers increased audio quality over analog, however, due to reception problems, AM receivers often loose data synchronization and return to the analog signal, creating up/down listening experience most find annoying.
Auxillary services, additional channels FM broadcasting did not have any such features in 1950 HD radio offers the choice of 2 additional channels for programming.  These channels are taken from the existing bandwidth/bit rate of the digital carrier and are a lower quality than the main channel.  In addition to that, there is a data channel that can be used to display song titles and such
Programming FM broadcasting began by offering programming unique from AM stations.  The programming often consisted of classical music networks, educational programs, news programs and other such things.  Additionally, commercial FM broadcasting often had fewer commercials than it’s AM counterpart HD radio main channel is the exact duplicate of its analog signal.  HD-2 and HD-3 channel offer a variety of programming choices including simulcasts of AM stations, retransmissions of co-owned out of market stations, syndicated satellite programs, and occasionally a niche format.
Electronic Media availability During the early FM development and implementation the only competing electronic medium was AM radio The choices of electronic media are wide and diverse.  These include TV, satellite radio, internet, 3G wireless, mp3 players, AM and FM radio
Regulatory environment The FCC staff was filled with ex or future RCA employees, who were interested in the status quo, thus keeping FM from becoming too big too fast and competing with the roll out of RCA’s television technology.   Therefore it was hobbled with low power levels and a bizarre station class structure HD radio has enjoyed a rubber stamp environment where large businesses and  the FCC work together to re-write interference regulations with no regard for technical consequences.

The FM roll out in the late forties and early fifties is vastly different from the HD Radio rollout in the zero zeros.  Due to fear of competition and patent disputes, RCA in conjunction with the FCC did all they could to squash the new technology.  That is why FM radio took so long to be accepted by the general public.  For those not versed with the history of FM development and FM broadcasting in the US, see Empire of the Air, by Tom Lewis.  See also: Edwin H. Armstrong.  It is a good read for those radio obsessed.

HD Radio is failing because the consumer is not buying it, I see little to change their mind.

MMTC Radio Rescue, sort of like the Patriot Act – For Radio

I read with interest the MMTC’s (Minority Media Telecommunication Council) ideas for rescuing radio.  In the summary, they make the statement:

By granting this Radio Rescue Plan quickly, the FCC can provide lenders and investors with assurance that the federal government stands behind the survival and sustainability of this industry that is so vital to public service, public safety, minority entrepreneurship and democracy

Red flag.  Anytime some groups want to rush something through because of some perceived crisis, it should be closely examined for potential conflicts of interest.

It is fine to look into the rules and make changes as technology evolves, rushing some change through because the economy has gone south is not the best plan.  If radio is in such bad shape that it needs a rules relaxation to survive, that indicates there is something seriously wrong with the underlying structure.  No amount of rules changing is going to help that.

Anyway, they lay out some ideas, most of which have been batted about before and have had little of the intended affects.

  1. Re-purpose TV channel 5 and 6 to the FM broadcast band.  Allow AM station to migrate there with a priority given to relieve interference issues on the AM band.
  2. Night time AM signal contour rules, relax requirement to cover 80 percent of city of license at night.
  3. Modify or eliminate principle community coverage rules
  4. Replace minimum efficiency standards for AM antenna systems with “minimum radiation standards”
  5. Allow FM applicants to specify Class C, C0, C1, (etc) in zone I and IA.
  6. Delete non-viable FM allotments from the table of allotments.

1.  The first idea is to re-purpose TV channel 5 and 6 to the FM band.  This would allow more FM stations to exist and presumably many AM station to migrate to the FM band.  Sort of like the expanded AM band project in the 1990s where AM stations moved to the 1600-1700 khz range and then turned in their old licenses in the 540-1600 khz range to reduce interference.  Worked out well except for the last part, almost no AM station that moved into the expanded band has ever turned in it’s original license.  I doubt that they would in an AM to FM band migration.

Perhaps using this expanded FM band to move all of the NCE stations from the commercial channels and allow for LPFM’s to proliferate would be a good idea.

Then there is the problem of what to do with the various LPTV-6 stations that are still around.

I doubt the FCC will go for this because they can make too much money auctioning off the spectrum in one whole chunk to the highest bidder.

2.  Night time AM coverage rules.  The proposal is to allow a relaxing of the night time AM coverage rules over the city of license.   Currently required to cover 80 percent of the area or population except in the expanded band, where the requirement is 50 percent.  Making it all one uniform standard (50%) would make the most sense.  Not that it would make a lot of difference listener wise, still, it might ease the burden on some AM station that would otherwise be solvent.

3.  Modify or eliminate principle community coverage contours.  This idea  just seems like a way to satisfy more big radio consolidators and have more stations move out of their communities of license, which they are supposed to be serving.  This is the money statement:

MTCC believes that modification fo these rules benefit small, women, minority, and all broadcasting licesnses by providing them with additional flexibility for site location

How?  I still cannot fathom how this will benefit those groups mentioned above, seems like a generic statement with no merit.

The rim shot signals which are at least providing some type of radio programming to rural areas would cease to exist as they would all pick up and move toward population centers.  This is a bad idea.  The owners who bought rim shots should have known they were buying rim shots in the first place and not be expecting too much in the way of moving things around to accommodate their idea of what the FM broadcast band should be.

4.  Replace minimum efficiency standards with a minimum radiation standard for AM antenna systems.   The proposal states that when those standards were adopted, land was plentiful and electricity was not.  I would comment that neither land nor electricity is plentiful today.  Reducing this standard would open up potential AM station buyers to risk of investing in a bigger money pit than what AM radio currently is today.

In other words, it is a bad idea which would only cause potential owners to be saddled with huge electric bills and hasten the end of AM radio.  As an engineer, I know that with the right amount of capacitance and inductance, I can load up an AM transmitter to a chain link fence.  That doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

5.  Allow FM applicants to specify class C, C0, C1, C2, C3, (etc) in zone I and IA.  I presume they mean to allow a class B to specify class C2 and a class B1 to specify a class C3.  This might make the application process a little more uniform, but I doubt it would make much difference in the FM band.

Also, they seem to use the term “spectrum warehousing” often.  What does that mean?  They make an elusion to the difference between a 54 dBu and a 60 dBu contour.  Is that 6 dBu a “spectrum warehouse?” It is really nonsensical, sort of like “precious bodily fluids” in Dr. Strangelove.

6.  Non-viable FM allotments.  Sure, delete them or re-align them so that they might be usable to someone.  Makes sense.