At the NAB Radio Show, Commissioner Ajit Pai delivered an address discussing a number of topics, including a proposal for the FCC to undertake a study of AM radio and to come up with a plan to make that service more competitive. We cover many topics here on the Broadcast Law Blog, and often write about changes in service for FM radio and television, as well as the digital media, but it seems that our coverage of AM mirrors the FCC’s attention to the service in the last few years – relegated primarily to situations where struggling AMs run on a shoe string budget run into the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau because of some significant violation of the Commission’s rules. So what did Commissioner Pai propose, and is it realistic to expect real reform of the AM service?

The mere fact that the Commissioner proposed a study, and one to be completed in just over a year, is in and of itself encouraging. The NAB has been internally conducting a similar study, though no results have been released yet. The AM band has suffered from many problems, including a decrease in the quality of AM receivers as FM has become much more dominant, and the increase in background “noise” creating interference to AM service – all sorts of electronic devices that are now so common everywhere, including many of the lights now used both indoors and outdoors, create interference to the AM service that make listening, especially in most urban areas, difficult. So what can be done?

The Commissioner proposed several possibilities. Among these was the idea of an across the board increase in AM power. A similar power increase on a much smaller scale was done for certain low-power AM stations about 20 years ago when these stations were perceived to be suffering from interference issues. Perhaps this proposal has some merit, thought there may also be many issues.  How can certain AMs already at 50 Kw increase power, especially given today’s concerns about RF radiation? (I’ve heard stories from engineers about very high power AM transmitters in other countries that probably would not excite those concerned about the radiation effects of transmitters) In addition, careful consideration would have to be given to how power increases could be done in such a way so as to avoid raising the actual interference levels between AM stations. These issues and others would have to be carefully explored.  A petition to allow such a power increase was actually filed at the FCC several years ago (see our article here).

The Commissioner also proposed studying whether AM synchronous transmitters could be used – essentially a system of low power repeaters instead of the higher power transmitters now used. Alternatively, he suggested anti-skywave transmitters that would decrease the interference that AM stations cause to each other. One industry professional suggested after the speech that such a proposal might require a repeal of the laws of physics, which is obviously outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction. We would be very interested in comments by others as to the likelihood of such a proposal being technically feasible. Obviously, it’s worth review, but may well be very difficult to achieve.

One proposal for AM improvement was not discussed – a proposal to use TV channels 5 and 6 as a way to re-invent the AM band – moving all AM stations to what is in essence the FM band (as TV channels 5 and 6 are adjacent to the FM band), allow them to operate digitally, and avoid the many interference issues inherent in the current AM band. This proposal has already been advanced by the FCC, comments have been received, and they could be acted on tomorrow (see our previous articles on the subject here and here). This proposal is complicated by the FCC’s incentive auction proposal and the concern that these channels might be needed for TV stations reallocated out of the UHF band. So it appears that this proposal is, at least for the time being, on hold.

We’ll watch with interest to see what develops as will, we are sure, many operators of AM stations.