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FCC weighing new transmission rules for digital FM stations

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that seeks public input on the topic of digital FM radio broadcasts.

Specifically, federal regulators are weighing whether to allow low-power and full-digital FM radio stations to increase the power of their HD Radio signals in an effort to spur adoption of the technology and reach more listeners.

HD Radio includes technology that is proprietary to Xperi Corporation, which licenses the standard to AM and FM radio stations that want to offer multiplex digital radio channels alongside their standard analog signal.

While HD Radio has seen some adoption in cars and trucks, there are few handheld and portable radios on the market capable of receiving digital broadcast transmissions, in part because Xperi charges electronic makers a per-device fee for incorporating various hardware and firmware needed to receive the signals.

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“Broadcasters and consumers increasingly prefer digital FM radio, which delivers better sound quality than traditional analog FM service,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairperson of the FCC, said in a statement last month. It was not clear how Rosenworcel reached this conclusion.

While AM and FM radio signals are largely resilient, HD Radio signals tend to drop out around 25 to 30 miles from their transmission point. City-grade signals are typically available without issue in major metropolitan areas, but those living in suburban and rural areas often cannot reliably lock into a digital signal without the occasional drop-out, if they can receive the signals at all.

The proposal would allow FM broadcasters in particular greater flexibility in boosting their digital radio signals, while attempting to reduce interference in areas where stations overlap.

Already, some key industry stakeholders are voicing their support for the initiative. Officials at New York Public Radio (NYPR) said offering FM radio stations a path to improve their digital radio signals would benefit broadcasters and listeners alike.

“As a long-time advocate and user of HD Radio technology, NYPR is committed to providing New York-area listeners with the full benefits of digital FM broadcasting now and in years to come,” the public broadcaster said in a brief filed with the FCC. “NYPR therefore has a significant stake in the growth and development of HD Radio service.”

But some companies say the proposal may cause harmful interference to other services, including television delivered over microwave relay, if the FCC changes its methodology for approving digital FM radio transmissions.

During a telephone meeting with the FCC’s Media Bureau last week, officials at Charter Communications expressed concern that their business could be harmed if the proposal goes through.

“Charter explained that changing the [FCC]’s methodology for determining whether digital FM stations are eligible to increase their power and allowing increases in power without prior authorization by the Commission could cause harmful interference to Charter’s broadband systems, which use the same frequencies as FM radio for both upstream and downstream transmissions,” a Charter executive wrote in a letter filed with the FCC.

Charter ended the letter by saying the comment period would “give the Commission the benefit of a complete record on the subject before taking further action.” As of Friday, the company has not filed a formal comment on the matter.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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