For decades, the FCC has been attempting to solve problems with AM reception – in the 90s looking to protect AMs from each other, and today trying to assist them in overcoming the effects of background “noise” coming from the proliferation of electronic devices in the environment which make AM reception, particularly in urban areas, very difficult. Even a number of car makers have announced plans to remove AM radios from new vehicles – particularly electric ones – given these stations’ susceptibility to interference from in-car electronics. Is there a solution?

Bryan Broadcasting (a long-time client that I assisted with its pleading) thinks it is time that the FCC do something dramatic to give AM a long-term future. This week it filed a Petition for Rulemaking asking the FCC to allow any AM to go all-digital in its operation. The pleading does not suggest that any AM be forced to convert to an all-digital operation – instead it proposes that stations be given the option to make that conversion whenever they want. This is not a new concept, the FCC having considered it in the past and, in its 2015 AM Revitalization Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, discussed listed it as an issue on which they wanted comments so that they could consider such a transition at some point in the future (that discussion principally advanced in the FCC’s questions about the future use of the expanded band – see our post here on that 2015 Order). Already, there is one AM station in Maryland operating full-time with all-digital facilities under experimental authority, and several tests have been conducted across the country on this all-digital operation. While these tests have shown many positive results, why suggest this option for AM stations to make this digital conversion now?

The petition says that this proposal is just a recognition of the reality for AM broadcasting. The electronic noise in the environment is not going away no matter what tinkering is done with the current AM transmission standard. Music programming, and probably much other programming as well, simply will not be of acceptable quality when subject to this interference. An all-digital signal can overcome this noise, and an all-digital signal is much more robust than the digital operation allowed by the hybrid digital-analog system currently permitted by the FCC.

While FM translators have provided relief to some AM stations, they have not solved any reception issues with the AM signal – they have just given the stations that were fortunate enough to get a translator a lifeline until a real solution comes along. Plus, not all AM stations, particularly those in large markets, were able to be awarded a translator license. For those AM stations that did not get a translator, or for those whose AM signal reaches farther than a translator can, other solutions are needed. Bryan Broadcasting argues that this market-based approach – a voluntary transition to AM digital – may provide the answer for AM stations.

This is just a Petition for Rulemaking. The FCC is likely to ask for comments on the Petition, then consider whether to issue a formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. If the proposal gets to an NPRM, then more comments will be taken before this proposal could be adopted. Thus, this permission will not happen overnight, although additional stations could ask for experimental authority in the meantime. But if Bryan Broadcasting has its way, this option will be open to AM broadcasters soon so that they can adapt to modern marketplace conditions.