FCC 375

By a unanimous vote, the Federal Communications Commission today approved a proposal that will allow broadcasters to voluntarily power down their analog AM transmitters and serve the public with only a digital signal. The FCC concluded digital would offer a “superior listening experience” for listeners than analog. Under the current rules, AM stations are authorized to operate with either pure analog signals or hybrid signals, which combine analog and digital signals. Yet the problem of interference remains. “What we’re doing today is enabling AM broadcasters to compete in an increasingly digital landscape,” said Chair Ajit Pai.

One requirement that the FCC has included is the establishment of a 30-day waiting period after a station files a Form 335. Once those details are submitted, a station would not be able to make any changes to its planned technical operation. The 30-day notice would also be used to alert listeners with required on-air messages that, without a digital receiver, they will no longer be able to hear the station. As for what those listener notices must say, the FCC is deferring to stations, saying broadcasters have a “strong incentive” to promote the change using on-air and website announcements.

The order also includes a number of technical guidelines, mostly geared toward preventing digital AMs from interfering with other analog stations. These include applying existing analog power limits to the digital broadcasts. But the FCC is giving stations flexibility when controlling that power, saying it is an “evolving and highly technical area” of radio engineering.

“Under my leadership, the Commission has taken a series of steps to help AM broadcasters confront the economic and technical challenges they face,” said Pai. “But to better ensure the future of AM radio, we need to squarely confront the band’s problems, foremost among them poor signal quality and listening experience.” Noting next week marks the 100th birthday of commercial AM radio, Pai said the band still offers a variety of local talk, sports and foreign-language programming, not to mention life-saving information during an emergency.

“Some may think of AM radio as quaint, but AM stations are vital to the communities they serve,” he said. “Making the transition to all-digital service presents a singular opportunity to preserve the AM service for future listeners. All-digital signals offer better audio quality, with greater coverage, than existing AM stations—whether analog or hybrid.”

Giving the FCC confidence that an all-digital signal can work is the experiment that has been running on Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD, Frederick, MD (820). WWFD has been operating as a digital-only AM station since July 2018 under experimental authority granted by the FCC. Hubbard has said that it has seen “significant improvement” in WWFD’s audio quality and that the digital signal has been “much more robust” than the analog signal. And while the move has meant that analog radios can no longer receive WWFD, Hubbard says the feedback from listeners has been positive.

Nine all-digital AM tests were previously conducted between 2012 and 2014, spanning a variety of station types and geographic locations.

The National Association of Broadcasters has backed the idea of permitting stations to power down their analog transmitter and only broadcast a digital signal. “The order provides AM stations with essential flexibility to provide interference-free broadcasts and attract new listeners,” said NAB President Gordon Smith. “Radio broadcasters are grateful to Chairman Pai for championing AM radio during his tenure at the FCC and thank him for successfully implementing policies to help revitalize AM stations.”

The NAB came to its conclusion based not only on a series of experiments conducted since 2012, but also what it says is the “significant” number of HD Radio-capable receivers already in use. It also illustrated how critical the issue has become, noting interference issues have already led some electric car makers like Tesla to stop featuring AM in their dashboard.