At the NAB Radio Show in Dallas in September, FCC Commissioner Pai promised that the FCC would take action to revitalize the AM band (see our story here). For years, AM has suffered a gradual erosion in listening, as interference on the band has increased – not necessarily from other AM stations, but instead from background noise that is now part of the environment in most urban areas. This interference is caused by everything from fluorescent lights to plasma TV screens to various other electronic devices that are prevalent in the modern world. At the NAB Show in Las Vegas the week before last, Commissioner Pai reprised his discussion of AM improvements, this time moderating a panel of experts to discuss the potential remedies to the problems faced by the AM radio service. So just what remedies may be possible?

The panel set out several possible solutions to AM interference issues, all of which have potential downsides or problems. These include the following:

  • — More FM translators for AM stations
  • — Blanket power increases for all AM stations
  • — A reduction in skywave protection
  • — The adoption of a cellular architecture for AM stations
  • — All-digital operation for AM stations

Let’s look at each of these options below.


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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?


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A petition was recently filed at the FCC proposing to allow all AM stations to increase to 10 times their current power in order to overcome the effects of interference that has grown up in most urban areas from the operation of all sorts of electronic equipment, fluorescent lights and other devices that simply did not exist when AM power levels were first established.  The petition was drafted by an engineer, who argues that, as the amount of background noise from all sorts of electronic devices has increased, so has the noise on the AM band.   He believes that the only way to make the AM signal usable is to vastly increase power on all stations.  As the stations would maintain their relative power levels towards each other, he claims that there would not be increased interference between AM stations – but that the increased power levels would overcome the background noise.  However, because of AM skywave issues, the petition suggests that nighttime power levels remain at their current levels.

How realistic is this proposal?  The petition recognizes that, in border areas, the power increase could not happen without international coordination and the amendment of existing treaties.  But, given the proposed high power for AM stations and the cumulative effect that their signals can have on distant stations, this increase could seemingly affect international AM stations even if the US stations increasing power are far from the border.  However, the use of AM stations has been decreasing in some countries – in Canada, a number of AM stations have already ceased operating, so maybe the international implications could be overcome given enough time.


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