FCC Gives Green Light to Digital Radio

FM stereo, introduced in 1961, was the last great leap ahead in commercial radio. That was 38 years ago, an eternity in technological time. Digital audio broadcasting (DAB) techniques are capable of overcoming many of the limitations of analog broadcasting, including multipath distortion. Such systems are already in place in Europe and Canada, so why not in the United States?

Blame it on the reluctance of American broadcasters to relinquish their present spots on the radio dial, and on the glacial pace of the Federal Communications Commission. As of November 1, the agency has finally decided to examine tests of digital audio broadcasting, which could help launch digital radio in the US within the next 18 months. An official document titled "Notice for Proposed Rulemaking to Proceed with Digital Audio Broadcasting" (NPRM) establishes the FCC's support for the development of digital radio. The official announcement is largely the result of work by USA Digital Radio, which petitioned the agency with engineering reports asserting that "IBOC" ("in-band, on-channel") technology "represents the best means of implementing DAB in the United States," according to Robert Struble, president and CEO of USADR.

Digital radio will bring "superior audio fidelity, signal robustness, and new improved ancillary services to the public," Struble said in response to the FCC announcement. "The Commission took a number of concrete steps that will ensure that this exciting new technology is made available to radio listeners throughout the United States in the very near future. We are especially pleased that the Commission closely reviewed our Petition for Rulemaking, submitted October 7, 1998, in crafting the NPRM. . . . We are pleased that the FCC has endorsed the testing process established by the National Radio Standards Committee, and look forward to submitting the results of our laboratory and field tests."

Digital radio is already in operation in Canada, and is well established in Europe, where a system known as Eureka 147 has been running for several years. American broadcasters were initially in favor of adopting the system for use in the US, but balked when they realized it would mean moving to a new part of the radio spectrum. They have opted instead for IBOC technology such as USA Digital Radio is promoting, which will let them bring the benefits of digital to listeners while retaining assigned frequencies. A well-known spot on the dial is a valuable asset in an age where "branding" seems to be the most meaningful—and most overworked—word in the marketeering vocabulary.

According to USA Digital Radio, the nation's 12,000 radio stations will be able to continue analog AM and FM broadcasts on their usual frequencies, while upgrading to digital with a "total systems approach." Field tests of IBOC DAB technology are being conducted in New York, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Columbia, Maryland, where the company is headquartered. Test results will be presented to the Commission on December 15, 1999.