At the NAB Radio Show in Dallas in September, FCC Commissioner Pai promised that the FCC would take action to revitalize the AM band (see our story here). For years, AM has suffered a gradual erosion in listening, as interference on the band has increased – not necessarily from other AM stations, but instead from background noise that is now part of the environment in most urban areas. This interference is caused by everything from fluorescent lights to plasma TV screens to various other electronic devices that are prevalent in the modern world. At the NAB Show in Las Vegas the week before last, Commissioner Pai reprised his discussion of AM improvements, this time moderating a panel of experts to discuss the potential remedies to the problems faced by the AM radio service. So just what remedies may be possible?

The panel set out several possible solutions to AM interference issues, all of which have potential downsides or problems. These include the following:

  • — More FM translators for AM stations
  • — Blanket power increases for all AM stations
  • — A reduction in skywave protection
  • — The adoption of a cellular architecture for AM stations
  • — All-digital operation for AM stations

Let’s look at each of these options below.

The first proposal, for more FM translators for AM stations, is a quick fix. Obviously, it does not address the fundamental interference problems with the AM band as it does nothing to eliminate AM interference. But it would provide a way of extending the life of the AM stations that could get translators to serve their service areas.

The problem, of course, is getting enough FM translators for all of the AM stations. In larger markets, where the FM spectrum is already very congested, there is no real opportunity for new translators, as the FCC is finding in its attempts to insert LPFM stations into these markets. Even outside those most congested markets, the number of translators available in many markets is small, as the FCC limits AMs to using translators that are already licensed. While the current processing of the translators left over from the 2003 window may open up some new opportunities for AM stations, many of these translators are not in the right places, and the FCC currently limits the distance from which a more rural translator can be moved into a larger market.

There are waiver requests pending at the FCC (including something referred to as a "Tell City" waiver) that, if approved, would allow translators to be moved into markets where they are needed to operate on the frequencies that are available in those markets. There is also talk about a window for the filing of new translators that would be restricted to AM licensees, but such a window is likely not possible until late 2014 or 2015, after the upcoming LPFM window opens and closes, and the bulk of the applications filed in that window processed. But even if there was a window, or if the Tell City waiver process was approved, there still would likely not be enough translators to go around to meet the needs of all AM licensees. Moreover, this would do nothing to solve the underlying interference issues.

Another proposal that has been advanced would be for a blanket increase in the power of all AM stations to try to overcome the background noise that has developed on the AM band. While there have been proposals for a doubling of the power, the discussion on the NAB panel was that this increase probably would be insufficient to overcome the noise. International studies have been done that suggest that AM power would have to be increased by 4 to 10 times to truly overcome the background noise, especially in urbanized areas. Such power levels would create all sorts of environmental and RF interference issues, especially for stations in urban locations, and would also vastly increase operating costs. For these reasons and others, there are substantial questions as to whether a power increase really is a solution.

There have also been proposals to decrease the protection afforded to clear channel stations, to somehow decrease "skywave" interference (the skywave signal is the signal that AM stations have, especially at night, where the signal bounces off a layer in the atmosphere and can be heard at great distances from the transmitter site), and perhaps even to go to a more cellular architecture in AM with many low power transmitter sites to decrease the interference of AM stations to each other. These very technical potential solutions all would look at the reduction of AM interference from one station to another, but would do little to address the background noise issue.

A long-term solution that has been proposed is to go to an all-digital AM band. There has been some discussion of moving the digital operations to TV channels 5 and 6, which are adjacent to the FM band, but these channels are still used by some TV stations. For the foreseeable future, the FCC is also going to want to reserve these channels for TV use, especially in light of the potential TV repacking after the upcoming incentive auctions. The FCC has actually already taken comments on this proposal in a rulemaking and could move on this proposal tomorrow (see our articles here and here) , but the concerns of TV operators and the repacking after the incentive auction seem to have stopped this proposal in its tracks.

Going all-digital in the existing AM band also appears to be a viable solution. Inside Radio yesterday ran extensive coverage of the tests done by the NAB and certain broadcast groups on all-digital AM operations – essentially shutting off the analog signal and running the station just in a digital format on its current channel. See the report on those tests that Inside Radio posted here; That conversion seemed to offer significant relief from background interference, and clear coverage, especially in cars, for distances at or beyond the current analog coverage areas. The biggest issue would be the receivers for the digital signal. While IBOC receivers that are already in the marketplace for AM operations (the so-called HD radios using the Ibiquity system) would work for an all-digital AM station. But there simply are not that many AM/FM HD radios in the hands of the general public. On the NAB panel, someone suggested that there might be 20 million of such receivers in circulation by the end of next year – while there are over 400 million AM analog receivers that are currently in the hands of the public. Would AM broadcasters be ready to spend the money for a digital conversion, abandoning all their current analog listeners, in hopes that these folks would follow the station into a new digital world? It is a big question that needs to be carefully examined.

No doubt, these and other issues will be evaluated by broadcasters, broadcast trade associations and the FCC in the coming year. But the issue is now, thanks to Commissioner Pai, on the FCC's radar screen. Let's hope that the evaluation of these and other ideas proceeds quickly to address the issues that so many AM stations currently face.