Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

A recent proposal to increase the power levels at which HD Radio stations operate – to improve coverage and, perhaps more importantly, building penetration so that people can receive digital channels inside buildings – has been the subject of a cautionary study released by National Public Radio.  That study was summarized in a story in the NPR magazine Current (an executive summary can be found here, and the entire 280 page study is here).  The study agrees that an increase in power suggested by the recent proposal would increase HD Radio coverage and significantly increase building penetration, but it would do so only at the cost of causing interference to existing analog stations – in some cases significant interference.  Such interference would be especially troublesome in receivers in cars, where radio broadcasters have long concentrated some of their most important programming to capture people in the place where competing entertainment options are most limited.   

The NPR study does suggest that there could be ways to limit the interference using directional antennas or lessening power but using digital boosters that could be tuned slightly off-center on their frequencies to protect adjacent channel stations.  HD radio operates on the sides of a station’s analog channel (thus its original name – "IBOC" for In-Band On-Channel), thus potentially causing interference to adjacent channel stations.  By suppressing the signal on the side of the signal nearest to the adjacent channel station and sending the digital bits out of the other side of the channel, some of this interference could be minimized.  Yet systems capable of such protections have not yet been fully developed.


Continue Reading NPR Study Suggests Concerns With Increase in HD Radio Power

The FCC recently issued a Notice of Inquiry, asking if it should consider mandating that XM Sirius receivers also be able to receive HD Radio or to play material from other audio sources.  This proceeding was promised as part of the FCC’s approval of the XM-Sirius merger, as a potential way of ensuring that competition in the audio entertainment marketplace remained robust after the merger.  While the Commission required that XM Sirius allow manufacturers to build receivers that could incorporate HD Radio or other audio entertainment technologies (e.g. MP3 player, Internet connectivity, etc), it did not require that any receiver contain such technology.  This proceeding asks if any sort of requirement along these lines should be adopted.  It also seeks information generally about the audio entertainment marketplace.

Specific questions posed by the FCC in this proceeding include:

  • Would a mandate promote lower prices and more choices for consumers of audio entertainment?
  • Should it be expected that audio devices with multiple audio entertainment capabilities will be developed without an FCC mandate?
  • Would an XM Sirius radio with HD Radio capability promote dissemination of state-level EAS messages?
  • How well has HD Radio been developing on its own?
  • Would multi-function devices facilitate the development of HD Radio?
  • Are such devices necessary for the development of HD Radio?
  • What other public interest benefits, if any, would result from such a combinations?
  • What technological issues would there be in multifunction devices (e.g. manufacturing cost, battery life, size and weight, interference, etc.)?
  • If a requirement was adopted, how long would any required phase-in period need to be?
  • Should any requirement cover all radios, or just certain types (e.g. in-car, portables, home receivers, etc)?
  • Does the FCC have the authority to adopt any such mandate?

That last issue, the FCC statutory authority to adopt rules in this area, is a general question considered in several other recent FCC proceedings (for instance, see out post here).  Just because the FCC might think that something is a good idea does not mean that it can adopt rules in an area.  Rules requiring that equipment manufacturers take certain actions have run into problems in the Court of Appeals in the recent past as the FCC has only limited jurisdiction over such manufacturers, so any mandate here will need careful justification or perhaps even a specific statutory mandate.


Continue Reading FCC Begins Inquiry on Mandate for HD Radio on XM Sirius Receivers

Last Friday, the rules on over-the-air digital radio for AM and FM stations – the IBOC system or, as it is commonly known, HD Radio – became effective.  The most immediate effect of the new rules, which we summarized here, is the ability of AM stations to operate using the IBOC system at night.  The Commission determined that such operation offered more benefits than any interference it might create.  The final rules also allowed stations to begin digital operations – and multicast operations – on a permanent basis without prior FCC approval.  As these rules take effect, some stations are beginning to look to the multicast channels to provide new programming opportunities.

NPR has, in many ways, led the efforts to utilize digital radio for multicast operations.  In today’s Washington Post, there is an article about the city’s NPR affiliate, WAMU, which has recently announced plans to take its multicast operations to a new level.  WAMU had in the past programmed a substantial amount of bluegrass music, a local DC favorite.  Over time, that programming had been reduced as the station broadcast more and more talk programming.  The station had moved bluegrass to a full time Internet radio stream, and has now announced plans to move all of the remaining bluegrass and roots music programming (which had been limited to Sundays) to one of its IBOC digital multicast streams – and to include live announcers during at least some of this digital programming.  The Post article quotes the station manager as saying that the local Best Buy now knows that HD Radio is different from the service that XM or Sirius provide.


Continue Reading IBOC Digital Radio Rules Become Effective – Some Stations Lead the Way on Multicasting