Digital Radio Wars Heat Up

And why do people hate low power FM stations?

By Bennett Z. Kobb

WASHINGTON, DC, December 16, 1999 -- Now that Digital Radio Express (DRE) has joined USA Digital Radio (USADR), the number of proponents competing for the U.S. Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) standard has been reduced to two -- USADR and Lucent Digital Radio.

All three companies worked to develop In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) technology, which broadcasts digital sound on the same radio spectrum used by current analog AM and FM stations. "The companies will cooperate in the development of USADRs IBOC DAB technology and the regulatory process required for its adoption in the United States," DRE and USADR said in a news release.

The consolidation means that consumers are likely to be offered digital radios based on one of the two standards. Or, if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) takes the approach that it took with digital TV and satellite audio, receivers will be required to pick up all stations using either standard.

The FCC is now determining how the nation will make the transition from analog AM and FM to DAB. The process could be simplified if USADR and Lucent were to become a single proponent. That is what happened in the digital TV arena, wherein several large competitors created a so-called "Grand Alliance" that was intended to unify the best aspects of the competing digital TV technologies. The FCC later blessed the Grand Alliance's work, dubbing it the U.S. DTV standard.

Paul McLane, editor of the industry trade newspaper Radio World, told me that "observers are worried that digital radio will repeat the biggest problem of AM stereo -- namely, no clear direction or standard, and no approach to resolving the technical problems. With the DRE and USADR announcement, I think the industry will be pleased to see a reduction in the options and an increase in the possibility of an alliance similar to the Grand Alliance in DTV. A major concern is, will federal regulators act, and how will they act, if they don't sense an industry consensus on digital radio technology?"

Milpitas, California-based DRE was perhaps the most secretive of the three IBOC developers. Very little was known about the extent of its technology or the degree of broadcaster support. Columbia, Maryland-based USADR, on the other hand, is backed by broadcastings biggest fish, including ABC, CBS, and group-station owners AMFM, Inc., Clear Channel Communications, Emmis Communications, Gannett, and many others.

USADR formerly worked with Lucent Digital Radio, but both firms are now in a heated race for FCC and broadcaster support for their respective IBOC DAB approaches. It was a USADR petition which sparked the FCCs current fact-finding proceedings on DAB.

DRE is shifting its focus to data-broadcasting applications of the USADR system. DRE has developed a technology with CUE Corp., provider of a nationwide paging service that works on FM subcarriers, and semiconductor giant ST Microelectronics that it says "permits exponentially higher net data throughput, at low cost, for such products as Internet appliances, car radios, and a variety of mobile data-communication devices."

Effects of low power

A key issue in the big switch to DAB is a separate FCC proposal to launch Low Power FM (LPFM), which could bring hundreds or even thousands of 1- to 1000-watt mini stations to the FM dial. The FCC is considering whether LPFM would have little effect, or if it might complicate the advent of DAB by filling up the airwaves with many more stations than even digital technology could handle.

Incumbent broadcasters are vehemently opposed to the addition of new LPFM competitors. They lobbied congressional representatives to stop the FCCs LPFM project in its tracks. The results of this effort include the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act (H.R. 3439), which was introduced by Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio). The act would order the FCC to cease and desist considering LPFM and to nullify any LPFM licenses it may have issued by the time the bill passes.

This bill is cosponsored by several other representatives, including Barbara Cubin (R-Wy.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fl.), Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Md.), Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) and Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). The bill was referred to the House Commerce Committees telecommunications subcommittee.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) opposes the FCCs direction on LPFM, primarily due to fears of interference from the new stations. "CEA applauds Representative Oxley and the other cosponsors of this bill for their leadership on this important issue," said CEA President Gary Shapiro. "We share Representative Oxley's commitment to protecting consumers investment in the 710 million FM receivers currently in use in the United States."

CEA and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) submitted technical studies to the FCC demonstrating LPFMs interference in FM listening. But "the technical arguments opposing LPFM require an assumption that the radios that most people use don't work well," according to Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Washington, DC-based Media Access Project (MAP), a non-profit law firm that has invested in detailed technical studies of its own.

MAP retained University of Virginia engineering professor Theodore Rappaport, an expert on advanced radio technologies, to examine the technical prospects for LPFM. In results submitted to the FCC, Rappaport concluded that the NAB and CEA studies were "conducted inappropriately and presented with unfair bias against LPFM." The report further purported that LPFM would not jeopardize IBOC DAB: "Digital radio has been designed to perform in the current radio environment. LPFM will not significantly change that environment, and therefore will have an insignificant impact on digital broadcasting."

"When Rep. Oxley hears from the churches, community groups, high school students and others, he may reevaluate his opposition to low power radio," Leanza said. "At this point, I have not seen his bill make any progress. The grassroots response to this LPFM proposal has been amazing. As soon as the issues are explained to most people, they see the benefits."

Radio activist Pete Tridish, of the Prometheus Radio Project, said the following of Oxleys bill: "It's unfortunate that these few congressmen have chosen to micromanage the rulemaking process at the FCC with this spurious piece of legislation, but it should be remembered that many more have signed on to a letter of support for the FCC and its low power radio initiative. We are optimistic that in the end, our nations politicians will show that they care more about the overwhelming public support for Low Power FM than they fear the wrath of the powerful broadcast lobby."