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Technical problems in US spell further delays for digital radio in Canada

News | 06/19/2008 2:10 pm EDT

An application filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week has given broadcasters on this side of the border another reason to take a go-slow approach to hybrid digital (HD) radio. On June 10, 18 radio broadcasters and major vendors asked the FCC to allow digital FM stations to boost their transmitting power 10-fold to overcome technical limitations with technology – namely, interference with existing FM analog stations, problems penetrating inside buildings and reaching fringe coverage areas. The power boost will solve the problem for some broadcasters, but could cause interference problems for some existing analog services.
There are also significant financial considerations. HD radio broadcasters have already invested millions of dollars in digital radio equipment, and a 10-fold power increase would require new capital upgrades.
The news is expected to further delay experimentation and eventual rollout in Canada of HD radio (also called FM-IBOC), according to Wayne Stacey, a leading expert on digital advisor and broadcast industry advisor.
"Everything is now in limbo in the US, so you can imagine no one is any hurry to move quickly on this in Canada," says Stacey, chair of the government/industry advisory group, the Digital Radio Co-ordinating Group.
It’s also doubtful the FCC will decide on the application before summer 2009, particularly if the Republicans lose the White House this November. That would trigger appointments of a new chair and new commissioners at the regulatory body and an updated work plan for 2009.
"The bottom line is that (FM-IBOC) got launched in the US perhaps before it was ready for prime time and now the chickens are coming home to roost and nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen," he adds. "So you can imagine that Canadian broadcasters are thinking they’ve dodged a bullet here."
There are currently more than 1,700 HD radio stations broadcasting in the US, including some along the US-Canada border. HD radio isn’t currently available in Canada, although Industry Canada announced in October that it would begin accepting applications from FM licensees for experimental transmissions. Eight months later, not a single broadcaster has applied.
"I expect Canadian broadcasters are waiting to see what happens in the US," suggests Stacey. "That probably explains why there has not been any stampede in response to the department’s indication that they would accept experimental proposals."
Industry Canada’s Broadcast Technical Advisory Committee met June 16 in Ottawa to provide industry stakeholders with an update on several broadcasting files, including HD radio. Vassilios Mimis, director of the department’s Broadcast, Multimedia Planning and Technical Policy branch, says there is interest from "a couple of broadcasters" in experimental licences and expects to receive the first applications this year. In the meantime, the branch is working with the broadcasting industry on the technical and administrative procedures governing experimental licences. The final procedures will come later.
"We would like to get some experience from the experimental operations before we rush into final type of technical requirements," says Mimis.
One requirement is that transmissions operate on a "non-interference, no protection" basis. "If an IBOC transmission starts causing interference with existing radio stations then they we will ask them to fix the problem – either the reduce the power and if that doesn’t fix the problem we will ask them to turn the transmitter off," explains Mimis.

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