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Feds to Decide on Digital Radio

For generations, radio listeners have contended with static.

That may be about to change if backers of digital radio have their way. The technology they want to roll out within a year promises custom news and information at the touch of a button, CD-quality sound for FM broadcasts and an end to AM’s hiss, crackle and pop.

The Federal Communications Commission is to decide Thursday whether to allow radio stations to broadcast digital signals and how they should do it.

Digital radio could be the biggest update to the medium since the debut of FM in the 1940s, said Ken Mueller, radio curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. Mueller said that like FM, which didn’t become popular until the 1970s, “it’s going to take quite some time to phase in.”

“We’re not talking 30 years here,” he said, but “you have to wait until people start getting receivers to pick this up.”

Industry officials say they expect the FCC to approve a digital radio standard created by iBiquity Digital Corp., a company backed by large broadcasters including ABC and Viacom.

“There have not been any other digital radio solutions proposed. This is the only solution before the commission,” said Robert Struble, iBiquity’s president and chief executive.

FCC officials would not comment.

Over-the-air broadcasters are trying to stay competitive with services offered by Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio Holdings, which beam digital radio to subscribers from satellites.

Radio stations in cities across the country are awaiting government approval to go ahead with digital broadcasts.

The iBiquity technology allows broadcasters to use their existing airwaves, sending digital and analog radio simultaneously. Since stations won’t need a new place on the radio band and there is no cutoff date for analog service, listeners without digital radios won’t have their favorite stations go silent.

“If you had a black-and-white TV and your local station started broadcasting in color, your black-and-white TV still worked,” Struble said. “But if you wanted the new high quality picture you’ve got to buy a new color TV. It’s the same with digital radio.”

The transition differs from the one planned for television. Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for broadcasters to switch to digital TV signals. After that, anyone wanting to watch over-the-air broadcasts will need a TV with a digital tuner or a set-top converter.

Manufacturers will start taking orders in January for digital radios, which will first show up in high-end home audio systems and car stereos costing about $100 more than traditional analog models, Struble said.

Car stereos for sale next year will allow listeners to choose to hear reports on stocks, sports, weather and traffic. Some models will have small screens, displaying pictures of the artist whose song is playing, news or advertising, Struble said.

With models planned for 2004, listeners will be able to program radios to record their favorite programs.

iBiquity predicts that prices will fall as the technology becomes more common. Struble said he envisions future digital radios combined with cell phones or handheld computers. With global positioning system technology, digital radios could play music, news or advertising tailored to a listener’s location.

Digital transmitters will cost radio stations on average about $75,000, Struble said.

Mueller said the cost is not a big deal for many stations, but some smaller operations may get left behind.

Some supporters of low-powered radio stations – often run by churches, community groups or schools broadcasting to their neighborhoods – worry that the iBiquity system will interfere with their airwaves.

The broadcasters and electronics companies that back digital radio say tests show the system should not cause such problems.

Digital broadcasts use the same language as computers – a series of on and off electronic pulses. Broadcasts with the proposed technology won’t increase a radio station’s range, but digital signals can be cleaned up, removing garble and uneven reception.

Canada and parts of Europe and Asia have had digital radio for years, but those broadcasts are carried on a frequency reserved in the United States for the military.

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