The FCC today issued the long-awaited text of its decision on Digital Audio radio – the so-called IBOC system.  As we have written, while adopted at its March meeting, the text of the decision has been missing in action.  With the release of the decision, which is available here, the effective date of the new rules can be set in the near future – 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register.  With the Order, the Commission also released its Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, addressing a host of new issues – some not confined to digital radio, but instead affecting the obligations of all radio operations.

The text provides the details for many of the actions that were announced at the March meeting, including authorizing the operation of AM stations in a digital mode at night, and the elimination of the requirements that stations ask permission for experimental operations before commencing multicast operations.  The Order also permits the use of dual antennas – one to be used solely for digital use – upon notification to the FCC.  In addition, the order addresses several other matters not discussed at the meeting, as set forth below. 

The additional actions taken by the FCC and announced in the Order include the following:

  • Holding that a party that does a time brokerage agreement for more than 15% of any digital stream offered by another station has an attributable interest in the full station.  Thus, an owner who has a full complement of stations that he owns in a market cannot exceed the multiple ownership limitations by programming a digital over-the-air stream of another broadcaster in his market.
  • Rejected all objections to full-powered operations by grandfathered super-powered stations and short-spaced stations, finding that such a limitation was beyond the scope of this proceeding, and that no compelling reason for these limitations had been shown – but promised to monitor the situation.
  • Delayed consideration of whether noncommercial stations could use some of their digital capacity to offer commercial programming.
  • Permitted time brokerage of digital channels under the same rules that apply to a station’s main analog channel.
  • Found it premature to adopt rules for the full transition to digital operations –  and adopted no obligations for any minimum operations in digital.  So the choice of whether to operate digitally is fully up to the broadcaster.
  • Limited operation of subscription services on digital channels to those specifically authorized following a request for experimental authority, until after the Commission completes consideration of the comments filed in response to its Further Notice.
  • Applied most standard programming obligations to digital streams – including the political rules and sponsorship identification (including payola rules).
  • Applied EAS rules to digital radio channels just as they apply to analog channels.
  • Adopted station identification rules requiring that the station use its main station call letters, followed by the community of license, and some identification, either orally or in text on the digital receiver,  that a listener is listening to a digital stream (e.g. "This is WXYZ digital channel 1, Anytown, USA").  As with a station’s normal legal ID, the frequency of the station can be inserted between the call letters and the city of license.

In addition to these rules, the FCC adopted a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  Not only does this Further Notice address the issues listed above of allowing the commercial use of some digital capacity of noncommercial stations, and allowing the use of subscription services on digital streams, but it goes much further.  It suggests a number of revisions to FCC rules  – some of which would apply to analog as well as digital operations.  These include:

  • A proposal that public files for radio stations be kept digitally on a station’s website.
  • The possible use of a standardized disclosure statement for reporting the public interest performance of broadcasters.
  • The possible elimination of relaxed main studio and program origination requirements, which no longer require the origination of any programming at a main studio.
  • A possible requirement that stations be manned, cutting back on recent Commission rulings that allow for unmanned, automated operations during nighttime and weekend hours.  in particular, the FCC points to the automation of EAS and how that has led to some problems in cases of off-hours emergencies.

Addressing these most important issues will need careful attention from broadcasters, as these issues may well impact all stations – not just those who choose to operate digitally.  Comments will be due 60 days after the Order is published in the Federal Register.  Replies will be due 30 days later.