As we reported on July 7 and 17, the FCC had intended to issue final rules on Ibiquity digital radio standard in July, but suddenly pulled the item off their agenda. Currently, all broadcast stations operating in a digital mode are doing so on temporary authorizations pursuant to interim rules, and multicast operations are conducted pursuant to experimental authorizations.
Rumors at the time, reported in our blog entries, attributed the delay to attempts to work out issues over the public interest obligations of broadcasters on their multicast channels. Today, at the annual convention of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, an FCC representative, while not confirming that this was the basis of the delay, did say that there were requests by public interest groups for some quantification of the public interest obligations for these multicast channels, and also said that there was a pending proposal that leasing a digital subchannel to a community organization could be one way of meeting such obligations.
In thinking about this issue, it seems to me that the imposition of strict public interest obligations on these multicast channels may well impede their development. These channels may be used in ways that are far different than traditional broadcast stations. For instance, a station could use some of its multicast spectrum for an "all traffic and weather channel" (like that offered by satellite radio), or an all local sports channel. Uses like these may develop as a way to give local audiences programming that they may want on demand, as a way to compete with satellite or on-line offerings. If there are strict public interest obligations, requiring specified amounts of news or public affairs programs, the development of these innovative uses of the broadcast spectrum might be delayed. The FCC should tread carefully, as they don’t want to stifle the development of digital radio – or over-the-air radio’s ability to compete with new technologies.