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AM Revitalization Debate Steps Forward at NAB


<b>(by David Webster)<./b> FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is staying focused on AM revitalization with his moderation of a panel dedicated to the subject at this year's NAB Show.  This is encouraging news to AM broadcasters, many of whom have seen their technological, competitive and economic vitality sapped over the years.

Radio has advantage in its localism and accessibility; however this advantage, especially in the case of AM, is hampered through the poor reception experience suffered by many listeners.  Noisy signals with limited fidelity, combined with a night coverage that causes many stations to "effectively disappear" after sunset, puts AM in an intractable situation.  To remain relevant and thrive in the coming years AM radio clearly needs a "reboot".

I continue to applaud Commissioner Pai for taking, and sustaining, the initiative on this issue. There are various ideas on the table to be addressed by the panel, with many in the industry eagerly anticipating the discussion.  I have reached out to professionals in the industry in effort to gather their thoughts on creating a "wish list" of suggestions they would like to see addressed by the panel.  I have collected and summarized the most prevalent suggestions into 7 possible discussion points.

1.  There have been proposals for "across the board" power increases for AM broadcasters to combat interference and overcome reception issues encountered by poorly designed, yet commonplace, receivers entrenched in the marketplace.  This single change, while potentially costly for broadcasters to implement, offers the single most immediate benefit regarding improving AM reception issues outside of being on FM translators.  Yes, the ideas of regulating and cleaning up the "noise causing" devices that are creating the interference should and must be addressed, but the sheer quantity of these emitters makes the quest extremely daunting if not impossible.  What are the panel's thoughts regarding these two critical issues relating to AM revitalization?

2.  The use of FM translators by AMs to better serve their service area has been a boon to the broadcasters that can acquire them.  However, there have been many cases in which an AM could acquire a translator but current rules will not allow the translator to be moved within a station's service area.  There is proposal to relax these rules and better help accommodate these moves that is awaiting decision.  As it is generally not the policy to comment on policy changes that are currently under review, it would still be good to hear panel discussion on the subject along with other issues related to FM translator use by AMs.

3.  There has been much discussion about transitioning current AM stations to a new "all-digital" band.  The majority of broadcasters that I corresponded with ultimately believe this to be the most likely long-term solution.  Proposals include those by the Broadcast Maximization Committee for repurposing the spectrum of television channels 5 and 6 along with the DRM Consortium's utilization of the 26Mhz space for local broadcasting.  Converting to a new band scheme will certainly take time to occur, so it is imperative to begin as soon as feasible.  It would be great to hear discussion amongst the panelists along with those that may have taken place within the Commission regarding these issues.

4.  There has been much discussion, and recently testing of, utilizing the HD Radio or DRM systems in their "all digital" modes with a possible goal of dropping "hybrid digital" and "analog only" broadcasting.  I have found almost unanimous opinion by broadcasters and others in the industry that this is a total non-starter without some sort of timeline and receiver mandate by the Commission such as occurred with the DTV transition.  In taking this issue as a serious consideration, would the Commission consider "mandating" a digital radio transition to accelerate uptake and what is the industry's opinion?

5.  An AM improvement idea which is gaining traction is that of "Single Frequency Networks" or SFNs.   In SFNs a synchronous transmission is simultaneously broadcast on multiple lower-powered transmitters covering smaller "cells" throughout a station's service area.  These more numerous lower-power localized nodes could overcome issues including noise and coverage limitations, especially at night.  Many stations have to reduce their power to a fraction of their daytime levels at night, so if this lower-power level could be simultaneously broadcast from multiple locations, a station could cover its service area without contributing significant skywave interference at night.  SFNs make even more sense with digital transmission since these systems have been purposefully designed for these broadcast environments.  It would be nice to hear the panel's perspective regarding such "synchronous" broadcasting topologies on AM as well as FM.

6.  Many barriers to AM improvement are due to the physics of the band itself, at this lower frequency AM radiators are much larger than those of FM, often hundreds of feet in height.  Many AM transmission facilities are ageing and in need of replacement or repair which can be an expensive, if not impossible proposition for an operator, especially in cases of directional antenna systems.  For the current broadcast environment and for future consideration of synchronous transmission systems with a multitude of  "cells", the need for less costly lower profile, yet efficient, antennas is at hand.  Since most AM antenna technology, designs and principles have not changed much since the 1920's, what could industry and the FCC do from a regulatory perspective to foster, test  and ultimately approve new "lower profile" antenna systems for AM?

7.  Continuing along the lines of "transmission improvements", the concept of "anti-skywave" antennas has taken on an almost "cult like" status as the Holy Grail for AM.  It would be great to hear the panel's insights on this issue, especially in regards to what private industry along with the Commission and other governmental entities could do to computer model, test, construct and proof these designs.

In summary, these are just few AM revitalization topics that will hopefully be joined with many more to be discussed by the panel.  Again, my appreciation to Commissioner Pai, along with this esteemed group of panelists for their consideration and commitment to help AM broadcasting "Reload" as it transitions towards its second century.

Dave Webster is the CEO at VSI|HD Media Services in Southington, CT and can be reached at David Webster


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