AM radio dial

The prospect of a digital-only AM station may still be far on the horizon, but if it one day becomes reality the first step to securing regulatory approval has just occurred. The Federal Communications Commission has put up a proposal submitted by Texas broadcaster Bryan Broadcasting last month for public comment. It’s not a formal rulemaking, but the process could lay the groundwork for a FCC decision allowing digital-only AMs in the future.

In a petition filed last month, Bryan Broadcasting VP and general Ben Downs said giving stations the option of dropping their analog signal would provide struggling AM owns an “innovative tool” with which to compete. Broadcasters will have until May 13 to chime in on what’s been docketed as RM-11836.

Downs says he’s pleasantly surprised to see the FCC moving so quickly on his petition. The proposal drew some attention among engineers at last week’s NAB Show, although agency staffers were less committal. That made it all the more encouraging when Downs returned from the Las Vegas convention to learn the Media Bureau opened it up to comments.

“It was clear from the discussion panels that unless there’s interest shown in this 30-day comment period, we will not have this approved as a licensed option,” Downs said. “I don’t think anyone questions the all-digital MA-3 option from a technical feasibility position anymore, separate from the hybrid mode that is authorized. So I would hope the Commission would recognize that this is the next logical step in the AM Revitalization effort.”

One reason Bryan Broadcasting has gotten behind the all-digital idea is the impact it has seen and heard from one of its stations. “News Talk 1620” WTAW Bryan-College Station, TX is one of about 200 AMs that are broadcasting in both analog and digital. Downs said they’ve been “very pleased” with the reduction in impact noise, pops, and buzzes that frequently plague AM radio. But he said the hybrid mode tends to be “fragile” with signal dropouts occurring in places where no obvious cause exists. An all-digital signal, Downs argued, would make WTAW’s coverage area even more reliable. Ultimately, all-digital AM has been tested and it works, Downs told the FCC.

Broadcast attorney David Oxenford, who worked with Bryan Broadcasting on its petition, has said there’s no assurance the FCC will take the next step and advance the proposal to a formal notice of proposed rulemaking. But he’s said it’s possible it may spur the FCC to give more stations experimental authority to test the digital-only AM concept.

The FCC has already been toying with the idea of allowing digital-only AM stations. The Media Bureau last year granted one-year experimental authority to conduct tests on all-digital using Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD Frederick, MD (820). Hubbard is working with the National Association of Broadcaster’s PILOT program as well as HD Radio license holder Xperi, Kintronic Laboratories, and the engineering consulting firm Cavell, Mertz & Associates to use the real-world environment to conduct experiments designed to improve “the technical phases of operation and service.” That includes testing to see how the switch to an all-digital signal impacts WWFD’s coverage area. Nine all-digital AM tests were conducted between 2012 and 2014, spanning a variety of station types and geographic locations.

Downs has spoken with other AM operators and most aren’t willing to put the investment into an experimental facility. “If a broadcaster were to convert to all-digital on an experimental basis, when the year test period license expires, the equipment purchased just goes back on a shelf unless all-digital operation is approved. That’s very risky, financially,” he said.

Xperi executives have said the WWFD test data has piqued the interest of carmakers with “up to a dozen” car manufacturers approaching the company to take a closer look at the all-digital AM test results. And according to Xperi, more than half (52%) of all new cars sold in 2018 came with factory-installed HD Radio receivers across 40 automotive brands. It told Inside Radio last month that more than 50 million HD Radio receivers are on the road, comprising 18% of all cars on the road.