FCC Approves "IBOC" Digital Radio

Beginning early next year, digital satellite radio startups may have some competition from terrestrial broadcasters, thanks to an October 10 decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

On that day, the agency approved "In-Band, On-Channel" (IBOC) digital broadcasting technology, developed by iBiquity Digital Corporation. Also called "HD Radio," the digital technique is said to elevate the sound quality of AM signals to better than that of present FM, and to raise FM quality to CD level. The FCC's approval of the digital technique is the first significant change to radio standards since the adoption of FM stereo multiplexing in the 1960s.

The FCC has approved digital AM for daytime broadcast and digital FM for both daytime and nighttime broadcast, with final standards still to be determined. iBiquity is "working closely with the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC), co-sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), to develop final FM and AM IBOC standards," according to a company press release issued the same day as the FCC approval.

Broadcasters are free to begin immediate implementation of IBOC, after installing digital equipment in their studios, at an estimated cost of $30,000 to $40,000 per station. IBOC receivers and tuners will debut at the 2003 International Consumer Electronics Show in January, but consumers will be able to continue using analog receivers because IBOC accommodates both digital and analog signals within the same frequency band. CEA president Gary Shapiro said his organization is "ecstatic about the ability to turn the promise of digital broadcasting into reality for the millions of consumers who count on AM/FM radio on a daily basis."

The broadcasting industry was almost unanimous in its support of IBOC, which may enable new revenue streams through text-based messaging services and as-yet-undefined interactive features. "We believe broadcasters will embrace this new technology because it will provide local listeners with unmatched audio quality and a host of new, innovative digitally-based services," said NAB president Edward O. Fritts.

Digital downside: Some critics—such as Bard-Alan Finlan in this week's "Soapbox"—have pointed out that iBiquity's digital technique generates strong sidebands that may be a source of interference for adjacent channels in urban areas where the broadcast dial is crowded. As Mr. Finlan points out, interference was the industry's primary stated objection to low-power FM community radio, a movement that almost won approval during the Clinton administration.

Technical shortcomings will likely be solved. Digital radio may deliver the audio quality its backers promise, but as with high definition television, the great technical leap forward probably won't be accompanied by a burst of programming creativity. Great-looking TV shows will still be badly written; the corporate-dominated radio industry will still adhere to narrowly defined playlists. Can excessive use of digital limiters and compressors be far behind? Analog FM achieved its promise in the 1970s, when stations in many communities offered a wide range of excellent-sounding broadcasts. The ratings race that followed, with its emphasis on making each station the loudest one on the dial, turned the FM band into a sea of homogenous noise. "CD quality" digital radio could follow that path too.