TV on the Radio? A dramatic proposal could extend the FM band into the newly vacated TV channels.

TV on the Radio?
A dramatic proposal could extend the FM band into the newly vacated TV channels.

Everyone is talking about how television stations are transitioning from analog to digital broadcasts, but what does this mean – or what could this mean – for radio?

There have been several ideas floating around about what to do with the soon-to-be vacated TV frequencies. Radio practitioners have their eyes set on frequencies that run just beneath the FM band, formerly occupied by television channels 2 through 6.
The idea of converting TV channel 6 for use by radio following the DTV transition has been around for a while. This would add 6 megahertz (mHz) of space to the FM dial, meaning that instead of 87.9 to 107.9, the FM band would extend from 81.9 to 107.9.

Another use for the frequencies has been proposed by a group called the Broadcast Maximization Committee (BMC), led largely by AM radio practitioners and engineers. AM radio, which exists on the spectrum way down in the 520 kHz–1,710 kHz ( .52 - 1.71 mHz) range, has always been plagued with problems due to atmospheric conditions and interference from electronic devices and metal structures. With new electronics appearing everywhere, the interference environment is continually getting worse. As such, many AM radio stations would like to move to the FM band. \

The BMC drafted a well-researched case for using TV channels 5 and 6 to extend the FM band 12 megahertz (75.9 to 107.9 fm), where this new spectrum would accommodate the migration of both AM stations and existing Low Power Radio (LPFM) stations, as well as provide more space for new LPFM and Non-commercial/Educational stations (NCE). The BMC also included an elaborate plan for shifting around the few remaining TV channel 5 and 6 channels that chose to digitize in their existing slot, rather than move to the new band.

Two Pluses and a Minus for the BMC plan

+ The new stations would be all digital, which is a much more efficient use of spectrum than the current analog framework and can fit many more new opportunities from broadcast stations on the band.

+ The software that runs the new digital radios would be Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) rather than HD radio. HD radio is the proprietary format that is being used for the rest of FM, and the company that owns it is very secretive with its "intellectual property," charging licensing fees on every transmitter and every receiver manufactured. HD radio is only used in the United States. "DRM" is an open standard, used around the world, without licensing fees and without secrets. For more about HD radio, check out the other article in this newsletter.

- The BMC tried to sell its plan as "solving big LPFM problems" by forcing LPFMs to move to this new portion of the band, where not many people would have receivers yet. This is totally unacceptable to LPFM advocates.

While Prometheus supports the concept of reallocating channels 5 and 6 as an extension of the FM radio band, there are a number of reservations that we have with the BMC proposal – not the least of which is the forced migration of current LPFM stations to this new band. There are also a number of issues involving the 24 TV stations and the hundreds of LPTV stations that have chosen to remain on channels 5 and 6. These TV stations are major opponents of this plan.

So, Prometheus has teamed up with the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the New America Foundation to make a "shared use" proposal. It accommodates the existing TV stations, creates a lot of room for new radio stations, and allows for the use of "white space" devices. These "whites space" devices would use the pockets of unused spectrum between the TV and radio stations. We advocate using not just channels 5 and 6, but also channels 2 through 4. By using a wider swath of spectrum, we would allow all of the digital TV and LPTV stations to stay where they are, but still allow plenty of room for the AM stations to migrate. There would be room for new non-commercial and low power stations, and even room for the new advanced "white spaces devices" to mingle in there too. (For more about this, see "Why White Spaces" accompanying this article.)

Additionally, since all of the TV stations that remain on channel six will be broadcasting with a digital signal, they will require less interference protections. Therefore, Prometheus proposes that 87.9 fm <in analog> should be immediately considered a viable alternative for LPFMs facing "encroachment" from a full power station that wants to move into its broadcasting space.

In order to accommodate enough new channels for all of this, the new system would really have to be digital. You can fit many more new channels in the same amount of spectrum using digital technology. Prometheus stands up for LPFMs and for the rights of analog channels during the digital transition. However, it no longer makes sense anymore to use analog when licensing a new swath of spectrum for many megahertz of new service. If you stay in analog, you lose enormous opportunities to diversify ownership of radio. The drawback is that it requires new receivers. The average American household has 9 analog receivers, and none of them would be able to hear the new radio stations. But if the whole AM band were to be moved over, people would be a lot more likely to get one of the new receivers. There would be no day when old receivers stopped working, but eventually more and more people would have the new ones.

The New Radio Order

In the new digital space, spectrum could be allocated for different services such as: religious broadcasting, public radio, schools and colleges, public safety, organizations serving minority constituencies, and other new non-profit entrants. In other words, if different types of services had reasonable access to a given number of available channels based on the nature of the broadcasting, the politicized spectrum battles between unequal opponents could become a thing of the past. While the creation of these distinctions approach what naysayers would denounce as content differentiation, the non-commercial/commercial distinction is an excellent example of a similar plan that has worked.

The digital transition, coupled with use of new spectrum, can provide enormous opportunities for FM broadcast. This whole idea will take at least 3-5 years to work out, and probably another 3-5 years to implement. We'll keep you informed for opportunities to influence this policy in the future.

Why White Spaces?

White Spaces are pieces of spectrum that were allocated for a certain type of use (say radio or television) but are unused locally. For example, a city might have a TV station broadcasting on channel 6 but not channel 5 – a situation that is very common because channels 5 and 6 interfere with each other – which would mean that there would be white space on channel 5 ( from 76-82 MHZ) in that city. That could be enough to fit ten FM radio stations, or thousands of wifi style internet connections, or tens of thousands of cell phone calls. Up until just a few months ago, it was mandated that this unused spectrum remain unused, because it was inside the band that was set aside for TV. However, on last November 4th, the FCC issued an important order allowing the concept of "White Spaces" devices to move forward.

These new "white spaces" devices (such as computers and cell phones) will be able to listen to all of the allowable channels, see if anything is already using the channel, and then only use the channel if no one else is already on there. You can think of it as a "polite" radio. That way, they can use the spectrum that would otherwise go to waste... all without causing any interference!

Once this technology is perfected, it could revolutionize communications. Instead of having cell phones that connect up to a central tower and you are billed by the minute by ATT or Verizon, everyones devices can become nodes on a wireless world wide web with no gatekeepers, devices that can send audio and video and everything. It could set the stage for the total democratization of broadcasting and communications in general, where everyone is the owner of the channels, not just the people who can afford to buy million dollar licenses. This could bring the principle "the airwaves belong to the people" to a whole new level.

As you can imagine, there are lots of forces that will try to steer this fascinating potential to their corporate advantage. The early shapers of the internet made a lot of foolish assumptions about the way that technologies would automatically create greater freedom. Experience has taught us that elites can take even the most liberating technological idea and manipulate it so that they benefit the most from it. The future we have described is just one of many ways that this technological potential can play itself out, so we need to be vigilant and vocal about its implementation.

No matter what, the implementation of "White Spaces" will take many years, and broadcasting as we know it today will have an important role to play for a good long time. We'll have a more detailed article about white spaces and what they mean for community radio in the next issue.