Voluntary Conversion to All-Digital AM

At its November 22 open meeting, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to allow AM stations to broadcast an all-digital signal on a voluntary basis. The NPRM seeks comment on proposed operating standards for all-digital stations and the impact of such operation on existing analog stations and listeners. The NPRM is part of the FCC’s ongoing efforts to improve and revitalize AM radio service. AM radio has struggled with a decline in listenership over the last few decades, due in part to interference and reception issues as well as the availability of alternatives with better sound quality such as FM and satellite radio.

Digital signals are less susceptible to interference and offer AM broadcasters the potential to transmit auxiliary information such as song and title information to accompany the audio programming. Among the possible benefits of all-digital broadcasting touted in the NPRM are its potential to allow AM stations to reach more listeners with more reliable signal quality, clearer audio, improved power usage, and increased spectrum efficiency. The NPRM seeks comments on these and other potential benefits. It also seeks comment on the interference potential of all-digital stations, including adjacent channel, co-channel, digital-to-digital, and nighttime interference.

The Commission proposes to allow AM stations to broadcast in MA3 mode—the all-digital HD Radio transmission mode set out in the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC)-5-D Standard. The NPRM also seeks comment on the Commission’s proposals to require stations converting to or from all-digital operation to electronically file FCC Form 335-AM within ten day of transitioning from analog to digital operation or vice versa and to make such stations subject to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) requirements. It also seeks comment on the effect of all-digital operations on travelers’ information stations (TIS, also called highway advisory radio).

Additionally, the Commission seeks comment on the potential conversion costs for AM licensees, including licensing fees, equipment and installation costs, the potential loss of analog listeners, and the readiness of the public to transition to all-digital reception. It also seeks comment on the rule changes needed to implement all-digital operation and the associated cost and benefits. Comments and Reply Comments will be due 60 and 90 days, respectively, following publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register.

Radio Non-Duplication Rule 

In that same meeting, the Commission also adopted an NPRM seeking comment on whether it should modify or eliminate the radio duplication rule in Section 73.3556 of its rules. The radio duplication rule prohibits a commercial AM or FM radio station from devoting “more than 25 percent of the total hours in its average broadcast week to programs that duplicate those of any other station in the same service (AM or FM) which is commonly owned or with which it has a time brokerage agreement if the principal community contours… of the stations overlap and the overlap constitutes more than 50 percent of the total principal community contour service area of either station.” There have been significant changes to the broadcast industry since the Commission adopted the radio duplication rule in 1992. The NPRM cites the rise in total licensed AM and FM stations and the prevalence of non-commercial/educational radio stations as well as low power and FM translator stations as contributing to competition and program diversity in the broadcast radio market.

In light of these developments, the Commission seeks comment on how these changes affect the continued need for the radio duplication rule. The NPRM seeks comment on whether the radio duplication rule remains necessary to promote its original aims of spectrum efficiency, or whether current demands for spectrum now push radio broadcasters to maximize efficiency and supply varied programming to the local market.

The NPRM requests comment on whether and how the rule should be modified to reflect the current radio market if the Commission determines that the radio duplication rule should be retained. Among these modifications, the Commission asks whether the rule should only apply to the FM band, whether the 25 percent programming threshold should be raised or lowered, and whether the 50 percent overlap requirement should be raised or lowered. Comment and Reply Comment deadlines will be 30 and 45 days, respectively, from publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register.