Japan has done it. So too has Italy. Now a New Jersey broadcaster is proposing the U.S. follow a growing number of countries and open up low-band spectrum to AM broadcasters to create a new digital-only opportunity in the process. WRNJ, Hackettstown, NJ is proposing the Federal Communications Commission reallocate the 45-50 MHz of spectrum – currently used by state and local government offices for things like emergency management, transportation departments, fire departments, police dispatch, and EMS paging – for use by AM radio. It would, WRNJ co-owner Lawrence Tighe says, give AMs the opportunity to relocate using the DRM+ system. That’s the digital radio standard from the Digital Radio Mondiale Consortium that claims to deliver FM-equivalent sound quality on low-band frequencies.

In a petition for rulemaking, Tighe says the 45-50MHz has been “virtually abandoned” with equipment distributors explaining to him that most of the users have migrated to higher frequencies where hand-held communications equipment can operate more efficiently with smaller antennas. One manufacturer even told him that they only do work removing low-band base station antennas and that they no longer install the systems. Tighe says he used a spectrum monitor and, over an extended period of time, failed to detect any use of the bands in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. “There are a still a few users, but it is believed that it is just a matter of time before they also migrate,” he told the FCC.

The plight of AM stations is well-documented and WRNJ is no different. “WRNJ has experienced all of the problems that plague the AM band and, as a result, most of its listeners come to rely on the FM translators for WRNJ’s local programming,” Tighe tells the FCC. He says the idea of shifting AM stations to the spectrum used by television channels 5 and 6 remains popular with radio owners but the FCC hasn’t embraced the proposal. The 45-50MHz spectrum offers an alternative.

“The 45-50MHz portion of the VHF band would be ideal for local and regional coverage, the type of local service reminiscent of the early days of AM radio,” Tighe says. “Many other countries have already transitioned or are in the process of transitioning their AM stations to FM spectrum. In doing so, they are primarily using the DRM+ standard.”

Better Audio Quality And Service Reliability

DRM+ has been designed specifically as a digital replacement for current analog radio broadcasting. It allows an AM broadcaster to provide listeners with significantly improved audio quality and service reliability. It’s said that a 1,000-watt station would end up with coverage equivalent to what a 5,000-watt station has today. It would also lower electric bills by 40-50%. On FM it’s being used to reconfigure the dial so stations use less spectrum than current stereo FM broadcasts. The technology is owned by Digital Radio Mondiale, an international not-for-profit organization based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The biggest hurdle would be that receivers to pick up radio stations operating in lower band spectrum aren’t currently in use—or even for sale in the U.S. But Tighe says that’s nothing that can’t be overcome. “Just like any new spectrum usage, receiver manufacturers will respond to the demand for new receivers and AM stations can migrate to the new frequencies over time by continuing to operate with their current facilities during a transition period,” he proposes. And for AM owners who opt not to make what would be a voluntary move, Tighe says they would benefit from having more space on the AM dial. It would also mean that AMs would no longer need FM translators, which he argues would help eliminate some of the congestion on the FM dial.

Tighe says technical standards will need to be developed and owners will need to be convinced to invest money in the switch. But because multi-tower arrays will no longer be needed many operators could sell the land where the towers sit to raise the needed cash, he says.

The idea may seem radical, but Tighe says “innovative ideas are needed” to help AM broadcasters. “AM stations still have much to offer,” he says, noting most news, talk, and foreign-language programming can be found on the AM dial.