Digital Audio Broadcasting Survey results

I have been looking over this data for a few weeks and there are some interesting data points. First, I would like to thank everyone who participated. This is not a scientific poll, but rather an informal survey of those who chose to participate.

The survey consisted of ten questions and was posted on Facebook, Reddit as well as Radio World. There were 114 responses, which is a relatively small sample size and is less than anticipated. There were 5 people who opened the survey and then did not take it. This may indicate a level of apathy towards the subject. Most responses were from the United States, but there were a few from China, Europe, and Brazil. The average time to complete the survey was 1 minute 40 seconds.

The first question was a warm-up question and it shows a lukewarm response at best with the top two responses being “It’s Okay,” or “I am indifferent.”

A vast majority of respondents feel that testing other Digital Audio Broadcasting systems such as DRM30, DRM+, or DAB+ would be a good idea. In MB docket 19-311, the FCC left the door open for such testing in the future, stating in paragraph 26 “Finally, we (the FCC) emphasize that by approving use of HD Radio technology, we do not foreclose the possibility of authorizing alternative technologies in the future, if they are properly before us.”

Question #2 was an attempt to find out where most people are listing to HD Radio and radio in general. Not a great surprise that it is mostly in-car listening. The in-home listening is a little bit surprising. What is even more surprising is that 30% of the respondents do not have an HD Radio. HD Radio has been the digital audio broadcasting standard in the US since October 2002, when the FCC first authorized its use. Receivers are still an issue some 20 years into the project. I know that when I purchased a new vehicle (Ford) in April of this year, HD Radio was not an option in any but the highest trim packages. My first HD Radio receiver was a tabletop Sony XDR-S3HD purchased in 2006 or so for $200.00 which was a lot of money. A quick look on Amazon shows that the least expensive HD Radio is the Sangean HDR-14 for $70.00.

Questions #3 and #4 deal with the “analog sunset,” as originally proposed by iBiquity, the developer of HD Radio technology. After a period of time, according to the original plan, stations would turn off their analog signals in favor of all digital transmissions. In October of 2020, MB Docket 19-311 the FCC has allowed AM stations the option to do just that. Thus far, four AM stations have transitioned to all-digital broadcasting, one of which is off the air since the owner passed away.

According to the survey respondents, by a slim margin of 53-47%, all-digital AM is supported. The FCC has yet to consider all digital FM and by an equally slim margin of 46-54%, all digital FM is not supported.

Question #7 asks about perceived audio quality. I received a few email comments about this question. Three respondents noted worse audio quality on HD-2, HD-3, or HD-4 channels due to reduced bit rate CODECS. Five people skipped this question.

This gets to the crux of the problem; for radio station owners, it is expensive to purchase and install HD Radio equipment. If there are no great perceived improvements, what is the point? I find AAC audio codecs to be okay, however, there is a noticeable difference between CD player PCM and streamed audio no matter what the source. Low-bit rate codecs sound like they are coming from underwater. Why do we listen to the radio? Information and entertainment. I posted something many years ago: Listening to the Radio is like doing Cocaine. For the maximum dopamine effect, I like my music to sound like music, not some watery approximation.

Question #8 asks about additional features, most people find Program Associated Data (PAD) useful. Even in non-digital FM stations, RDS is an important feature and stations will get phone calls if the RDS is missing or stuck on one song for a prolonged time. Listeners have become used to glancing at the radio to answer that age-old question; what’s the title of this song?

In response to question #9 (How many hours per week do you listen to the radio (including streaming terrestrial broadcast radio stations via a website or smart device)? The average was 19.6 hours with a minimum of half an hour and a maximum of 90 hours. Interestingly, there were four people who put in 0 weekly listening hours.

Question #10 is very interesting. In spite of the lukewarm feelings it seems that most respondents would favor the FCC mandating a transition to all digital audio broadcasting by a margin of 62% with most opting for “at some point in the future.”

HD Radio has been stalled for some time. The technology has not lived up to the hype and for most stations, it is a way to feed an analog translator with additional programming. There is an overall lack of interest, the majority of those who did take the survey stated HD Radio was “okay.” Receivers are expensive and still difficult to obtain. All digital AM (HDMA3) has not progressed very far since the FCC allowed its use. Yet, the people who did respond felt that additional testing of various Digital Audio Broadcasting systems should be allowed. I don’t know, that ship may have already sailed.

All Digital AM?

I have been reading, with interest, the saga of HD Radio on the AM (AKA Medium Wave) band. First question; if it goes all digital, will we still call it AM? Of course, there are other questions and concerns:

  • The proprietary nature of HD Radio, AKA MA3 or NRSC-5D as they are now calling it, is problematic. Xperi, the latest patent owner, currently (their word) has agreed to waive licensing fees for AM station owners who install their system. Is this a limited-time deal for early adopters or in perpetuity for all stations?
  • The NRSC-5D tests on WWFD, Fredrick, Maryland are hopeful, but as I pointed out before, it is one station with a well-functioning antenna system. Many AM antenna systems are defective either in design or due to deterioration. Is the FCC going to start policing the AM band again to cure these self-inflicted wounds?
  • Of course, the NAB wants zero oversight on the entire adventure. Under their proposal, small ownership AM stations would have a difficult time remediating interference issues from all digital co-channel stations by eliminating any required notification period, as proposed by the SBE.
  • The NAB also wants to nix a 1 Hz carrier frequency requirement, which would help with both the analog and digital interference issue, saying it would be too expensive. I disagree. In this day of universal GPS timekeeping, it would be easy to implement this on all modern transmitters, especially if they were already installing an HD Radio exciter.
  • Denis Jackson’s Radio World Article states that reliable coverage can be had out to 0.1 mV/m. This seems very, very optimistic given that ambient electrical noise (non-broadcast related) on the AM band is at very high levels and still climbing. Further, once the all-digital conversion starts, more and more co-channel digital interference will happen, likely cutting down that contour to a great extent. It works now but may not work later. These types of statements seem naive or perhaps disingenuous. Again, WWFD is one digital signal in a vast ocean of analog carriers.

While I am skeptical of some of the statements made in various articles and comments before the FCC, I do believe that converting the Medium Frequency band to all digital will have benefits. The BBC DRM tests carried out in 2007 (The Plymouth DRM long term trial) show that digital on MF can work. DRM has been implemented in various countries with good results.

Getting rid of the hybrid IBOC/Analog is a step in the right direction.

My concerns are the small owners who are still making a go of it on AM. Those guys still doing community radio and serving the public interest. If they choose to wait, are they going to get buried under a digital dog pile and then have to pay the full license fee later? Something like that might be the end for them.

HD Radio in and of itself is not the panacea for the AM band. Other things have to happen to make it work right. The SBE speaks extensively about ambient noise on the MF band. They are entirely correct. In addition, there are many, many AM stations that do not have compliant antenna systems. There are stations operating a DA-2 system full-time on the night pattern. There are stations operating a DA-2 full-time on the daytime pattern and power. There are stations that are supposed to turn off at night, which stay on 24/7. There are stations not reducing power to nighttime levels. The list goes on. Simply putting digital carriers on everything will not reduce station-to-station interference, especially at night.

I am cautiously hopeful that the FCC will look into the ambient noise problem, which simply cannot be over-emphasized. They would also need to re-invigorating the Enforcement Bureau. Since they closed down most of their field offices, it has been kind of a free-for-all out here.

Speaking of Radio…

I was talking to a friend from Russia about history, my job, and various other things that are going on in my life. I received this reply, which I thought was interesting on a number of levels:

I’m glad we are on the same page about the era of the ‘cold war’. We were interested in your life even more than you in ours. We had almost no sources of information except for ‘The morning star’ which is a newspaper of the Communist party of Great Britain. The Voice of America and the Liberty (or Freedom, I have no clue because for us it was ‘RADIO SVOBODA’) were extremely hard to tune on. All foreign broadcasts were jammed. So to listen to the station you should maximize the volume up to the limit which was dangerous. Soviet houses are not at all soundproof and your neighbors could easily rat on you. Since that time I’d been dreaming of a small radio with could receive a clear signal from abroad. Of course we have the Internet broadcasting now but they often use old recording instead of live air and the signal depends on your data carrier. You should be online, you should have an app and unlimited data on your contract, your phone should be charged all the time. Too many conditions. Unfortunately a lot of foreign sites are banned here and the trend is to make this number bigger and bigger.

I find that perspective interesting.  We take for granted our ability to listen to information and listen to different points of view, even those we don’t agree with.  There are still trouble spots in the world and some people are not as fortunate.  It is very easy to block internet traffic and there are several countries that currently block access to some or all of the internet, for the safety of their citizens, no doubt.  Ideas are dangerous.

VOA/RFE transmitter site, Biblis Germany
VOA/RFE transmitter site, Biblis Germany. Photographer: Armin Kübelbeck, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

In the last ten to fifteen years, many large government shortwave broadcasters have reduced or eliminated their programming favoring an internet distribution model.  This is a mistake.  It is very difficult to successfully jam terrestrial radio broadcasts.  Shortwave Facilities are expensive to develop and maintain, there is no doubt about that.  However, as the Chief Engineer from Radio Australia (ABC) once told me “HF will get through when nothing else will.”  Ironically, ABC has eliminated its HF service on January 31, 2017.

It seems to me that a sort of “Shortwave Lite” version of broadcasting might be the answer.  Use more efficient transmitters with lower power levels closer in to the target areas.  Such transmitters could be coupled to rotatable log periodic antennas to target several listening areas with one system, thus greatly reducing the number of towers and land required.  Solid-state transmitters with a power of 10-50 KW are much, much more efficient than their tube-type brethren.

DRM30 (Digital Radio Mondiale) has not gained widespread use in the MF and HF bands.  Like its HD Radio counterpart, the lack of receivers seems to be one of the adoption issues.  As of 2017, there are only four DRM30-capable receivers for sale not counting software plug-ins for various SDRs.  That is a shame because my experience with DRM30 reception has been pretty good.  I have used a WinRadio G303i with DRM plug-in, which set me back $40.00 for the license key (hint for those nice folks at the DRM consortium; licensing fees tend to quash widespread interest and adoption).

CFRX, Toronto coverage map, average HF propagation conditions
CFRX, Toronto coverage map, average HF propagation conditions

Finally, I have advocated before and still advocate for some type of domestic shortwave service.  Right now, I am listening to CFRX Toronto on 6070 KHz.  That station has a transmitter power output of 1 KW into a 117-degree tower (approximately 50 feet tall) using a modified Armstrong X1000B AM transmitter netting a 15-32 µV received signal strength some 300 miles away.  That is a listenable signal, especially if there is no other source of information available.  The average approximate coverage area for that station is 280,000 square miles (725,000 square kilometers). That is a fairly low overhead operation for a fairly large coverage area.  Perhaps existing licensed shortwave broadcasters should be allowed to operate such facilities in domestic service.

The point is before we pull the plug on the last shortwave transmitter, we should carefully consider what we are giving up.

Brother, can you spare a theorem?

A theorem is not, indeed, a fact.  It is rather, an idea that is deduced and supported by other proven facts.  Thus, a theorem is generally believed a truth.  It should be of interest to the “All Digital” AM (AKA Medium Wave) proponents that noise on the digital channel will reduce data throughput as a function of channel bandwidth and Signal to Noise Ratio.  This is known as the Shannon-Hartley theorem:

 C =  B \log_2 \left( 1+\frac{S}{N} \right)

C is the channel capacity in bits per second;
B is the bandwidth of the channel in hertz (passband bandwidth in case of a modulated signal);
S is the average received signal power over the bandwidth (in case of a modulated signal, often denoted C, i.e. modulated carrier), measured in watts (or volts squared);
N is the average noise or interference power over the bandwidth, measured in watts (or volts squared); and
S/N is the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) or the carrier-to-noise ratio (CNR) of the communication signal to the Gaussian noise interference expressed as a linear power ratio (not as logarithmic decibels).

With this equation, one can discern a fundamental flaw in all digital logic.  One of the main issues with AM Medium Wave broadcasting is the ever-increasing noise floor.  Our society has changed drastically in the last one hundred years or so since AM was invented.  Electrical noise generators; computers, plasma screen monitors, mobile phones, appliances, energy-efficient lighting, data over power line, street lights, poor utility line maintenance, and even electric cars, it seems, generate a cacophony of noise in the Medium Wave frequency band. A digital modulation scheme, be it HD Radio or DRM, will mask the noise to a certain extent, that is true.  However, once the SNR exceeds the ability of the receiver to decode the necessary bits, the receiver will mute.  While it is true, the listener will not hear noise, they may not hear anything at all.

I will also note; none of the current “AM improvement” schemes under consideration by the FCC addresses the noise issue on the AM band.  Without addressing the noise issue, any digital modulation scheme will be a temporary fix at its very best.  The noise floor will continue to rise and after it gets high enough, the all-digital modulation will simply not work.

It will be interesting to see the data from the all-digital HD Radio testing that is being done in various locations.  That is, if the NAB, et al. does not decide to treat that data like some kind of state secret; they have become reticent of late.  When somebody acts like they have something to hide, it makes me think they have something to hide…