Review of FCC Proposed Rules for Digital Radio and Impact for LPFM- 2/12/06

As is usual with FCC Notices of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC digital radio NPRM is rife with contradiction and and obscure hints at the commissions desires.

The first two-thirds of the document looks very bad for low power FM. In sections 15 to 35, policy goals and selection criteria, new channels and licensing opportunities are not even mentioned. It appears as if the commission would attach no weight to a system that allows opportunities for new entrants.

It is rather funny to note this excerpt from the FCCs report:

1. In contrast to the CEMA Final Report, which compared systems based on a number of performance objectives, this first phase of NRSC testing appears to be designed to demonstrate the technical viability of IBOC systems, that is, "to establish whether or not IBOC DAB systems are a significant improvement over existing AM and FM analog radio services[,]" as well as whether IBOC systems can operate without disrupting analog service.

To me this means that they figured out that they could not get IBOC to meet any reasonable abstract standards of performance, so they chose instead to attempt to merely prove that it would be capable of performing " better" than existing analog FM.

There is an interesting footnote that Ford might be examining the Eureka model of digital radio in the US.

This following excerpt is perhaps the worst for us:

We previously recognized the close relationship between this goal and providing digital opportunities for existing broadcast licensees in the digital television (" DTV ") proceeding, where we concluded that " implement[ing DTV] within the existing framework of local television broadcasting " would be the best way to preserve the unique benefits of the local television broadcast service. We also concluded that existing television broadcasters were the group best suited to introduce this new service to the public " in the quickest and most efficacious manner. " We believe that the same reasoning applies here. In addition, as was the case with the DTV transition, we believe that it is desirable for all broadcasters to have the opportunity to provide DAB service.

And this one:

We seek to determine which DAB model and/or system would best promote our above-stated public policy objectives. In reaching this fundamental determination, we propose to apply the following evaluative criteria: (1) enhanced audio fidelity; (2) robustness to interference and other signal impairments; (3) compatibility with existing analog service; (4) spectrum efficiency; (5) flexibility, (6) auxiliary capacity; (7) extensibility; (8) accommodation for existing broadcasters; (9) coverage; and (10) implementation costs/affordability of equipment. The order of these proposed criteria is not intended to imply a hierarchy among them.

No mention of new entrants!!!

In this paragraph, the message becomes more mixed -- LPFM is treated as highly viable and likely to exist, though perhaps only with the third adjacent restrictions lifted.

We asked whether we should impose a 2nd adjacent channel protection requirement on LPFM stations " for the purpose of protecting a possible future digital radio technology, considering that creating opportunities for new radio service is also an important Commission goal. " Similarly, we ask here how a DAB system could be designed to protect a possible future LPFM service. Both Lucent and USADR expressed concern about the impact of LPFM on DAB but it appears that the possible relaxation of 3rd adjacent channel protection standards for LPFM would have no material impact on digital signal reception.

Here, we have our first (encouraging ) mention of new entrants:

What power, interference, and bandwidth trade-offs should the Commission consider in balancing the needs of incumbents and potential new entrants.

There is a good paragraph here about the need to protect only the protected contours of licensed stations, not the " existing coverage " (which is generally much larger than a stations protected contours). This can be of use in the lpfm proceding.

9) Coverage. Broadcasters argue that any DAB system should be capable of replicating existing coverage areas. Such coverage areas tend to be greater than the " interference-free areas " protected under the Commission rules. We recognize that preserving existing coverage areas may be an important aspect of ensuring a non-disruptive transition to DAB. Nevertheless, we tentatively conclude that the public interest is best served through the development of a digital radio assignment policy that adopts current analog protected service contours for DAB. The Commission has recognized in several different contexts that stations generally provide useful service beyond their service contours in the absence of interference. However, service contours are not merely a function of the distance at which adequate reception is possible. Rather, these contours reflect a balance between providing adequate service areas and expanding the potential number of station assignments. We believe that this longstanding policy is applicable here. We request comments on these views.

In 38, it becomes encouraging that the FCC sees IBOC (In Band On Channel) as a bit of a spectrum grab, and is considering forcing the analog broadcasters to return the rest of the usable channel back to the FCC for reallocation -- possibly to new entrants?

However, an IBOC approach also raises spectrum efficiency concerns. Current IBOC system designs are premised on doubling the bandwidth licensed to AM and FM stations to 20 kHz and 400 kHz, respectively, spectrum which is currently included under current " emission masks. " We recognize that the additional bandwidth for digital sidebands is an inherent feature of the IBOC hybrid mode. However, the IBOC system proponents envision that AM and FM stations would retain the additional bandwidth in an all-digital operating environment. A permanent expansion of the channel bandwidth might constitute a fundamental change in spectrum assignment principles.

We note that, on the other hand, current use of the frequencies to be occupied by the digital sidebands is effectively precluded by analog transmission technology and radio receivers now in service. We seek comment on the spectrum efficiency of the current IBOC system designs generally and, in particular, on using 400-kHz FM and 20-kHz AM channel bandwidths in the all-digital IBOC mode. We also seek comment as to whether a signal architecture that shifts audio carriage from sidebands to a center band in an all-digital environment is inherently more spectrally efficient than one which continues to operate on the basis of sidebands. We invite the IBOC system proponents to comment on the need for the sidebands in the all-digital mode. We also seek comment on whether spectrum may be returned at the end of the licensees IBOC transition to all-digital broadcasting.

In 39, it gets better. There is more talk of new entrants and balancing incentives to incumbents with new opportunities.

39. How do we balance the need to provide broadcasters with sufficient incentives to transition rapidly to DAB with the need to respond to the unmet demand for new entrants? We seek analyses of the minimum power levels that would preserve service within protected service areas in an all-digital environment, and alternatively, the levels that would not result in significant disruptions to current listening patterns. Commenters should consider the different implications of an IBOC approach over the short-term transition period, when hybrid transmissions require greater bandwidth, and the long-term, when the absence of analog transmissions could open up spectrum for new entrants.

In 41, the 82-88 MHz possibility is brought up. This is an interesting, but far in the future proposal. If I am reading it right, a scenario might look something like this:

41.We therefore request comment on whether the six megahertz of spectrum at 82-88 MHz, currently used for TV Channel 6, could be reallocated to DAB service at the end of the DTV transition. We seek comment on whether this spectrum could be reallocated without adversely affecting the broadcast television service. We also recognize, however, that a Channel 6 allocation could significantly delay the introduction of DAB. The earliest this spectrum will be available in many areas is 2007. However, the exact date of spectrum availability, which is tied to the end of the DTV transition period, could be significantly later. Thus, it appears that proven IBOC systems could be operational significantly sooner than an approach which relies on the availability of spectrum at 82-88 MHz. We request comment on all aspects of this new-spectrum DAB approach and ask interested parties whether there are other frequency bands that might be more desirable for new DAB spectrum. We note that the IBOC and new-spectrum DAB options need not be mutually exclusive and, in fact, could be complementary.

43. Any reallocation of the 82-88 MHz band for DAB service should facilitate the transition to a final DAB spectrum plan that would include the existing FM radio spectrum. For example, when DAB is accepted by consumers and proves successful, the existing adjacent FM spectrum at 88-108 MHz could be converted to DAB. Under such a plan, all existing analog FM stations would be permitted to switch their operations to digital service on their existing channels. However, such a transition could result in significant service disruptions. It would require broadcasters to choose between serving listeners with analog receivers or listeners with digital receivers. Significant listener dislocations could occur at the point of a " hard " transition to digital transmissions unless everyone has acquired a digital radio, which in turn depends on the cost-effective manufacture of digital receivers and widespread consumer acceptance of these devices. We seek comment on these transition issues.

49. As a further alternative, we seek comment on whether Channel 6 spectrum should be used to ensure adequate new entrant DAB opportunities. We seek comment on whether we may give preferences to LPFM licensees in assigning this Channel 6 spectrum, and if so, whether we should do so in the event we authorize an LPFM service. As we stated above, we are concerned about the interrelation between DAB and the proposed LPFM service, including a DAB system that utilizes Channel 6. Although we " do not intend to create a low power radio service on any spectrum beyond that which is currently allocated for FM use, " we seek comment on the extent to which a DAB system established on Channel 6 could ensure adequate new entrant opportunities. We note that the Channel 6 LPFM and IBOC proposals could be treated as complementary digital transition strategies.

My impression is that digital radio is slipping in without exacting any new public interest requirements.

1. In this Notice, the Commission: (1) reaffirms its commitment to provide radio broadcasters with the opportunity to take advantage of DAB technology; (2) identifies Commission public policy objectives for the introduction of DAB service; (3) proposes criteria for the evaluation of DAB models and systems; (4) evaluates IBOC and new-spectrum DAB models; (5) inquires as to the need for a mandatory DAB transmission standard; and (6) considers certain DAB system testing, evaluation and standard selection issues.

In addition, the Commission emphasized localism as a " touchstone value " of the terrestrial radio broadcast service.

The Consumer Electronic Manufacturers Association (CEMA) has filed comments suggesting a model more like Eureka and less like IBOC.