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FCC Prepares To Draft IBOC Rules

Washington D.C. — The launch of in-band on-channel (IBOC) digital radio service entered a new phase with the FCC decision to develop formal rules for digital radio broadcasting and to hear the music industry’s copyright concerns.

Radio stations have been authorized since Oct. 2002 to transmit digital programs on an interim basis if they use iBiquity’s HD Radio standard. Almost 300 stations have licensed the technology, but not all have begun broadcasting a digital signal that duplicates their analog signal.

During its rulemaking proceedings, the FCC will consider such issues as whether digital AM and FM stations will be allowed to multicast multiple lower quality streams rather than a single high-definition stream, offer subscription services, deliver traffic data that can be ported to in-car navigation systems, and provide interactive features.

During its copyright inquiry, the FCC will hear the music industry’s concerns that pirates will widely redistribute recorded digital-radio content through the Internet and digital media. An inquiry does not necessarily lead to a formal rulemaking proceeding.

In urging the FCC to act on content protection, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) contends that the “unfettered ability to redistribute recordings widely” and to “automatically copy” select songs “would fundamentally change the character of broadcast radio from a listening service to a distribution and on demand reproduction system, displacing the sales on which the entire music industry relies,” RIAA president Cary Sherman said in a letter to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

For his part, CEA president Gary Shapiro responded,”noncommercial recording of freely broadcast over-the-air radio programming is a fundamental consumer right, and one that has consistently been given great deference by Congress. Any discussion of curtailing that right, prior to even the most minimal showing of harm, is ill-conceived and premature.”

Shapiro also took issue with Sherman’s suggestion that device manufacturers could provide “‘buy buttons’ that would offer consumers the ability to quickly and easily purchase music that they hear on the radio.” The CEA, Shapiro said, “has long been concerned about content owners seeking to change the ‘play’ button on our devices to a ‘pay’ button.”

The automatic recording practices described by the RIAA, Shapiro added, “could be easily accomplished today using commonplace analog radio data service (RDS) technology combined with the digitization of FM broadcasts, but here is no evidence this is occurring.”

In developing IBOC service rules, the FCC is asking for comments by June 16, and it’s giving affected parties another month to send replies to those comments.

It isn’t clear, however, whether the FCC will act soon or at all on the music-industry’s copy-protection concerns. The inquiry is “a more leisurely paced” proceeding that will help the FCC “build a record on what the issues are,” said Robert Struble, president of HD Radio inventor iBiquity. Added CEA technology policy VP Michael Petricone: “We trust…that in the end the commission will agree with our position that there is currently no reason or evidence to justify restrictions on the noncommercial home recording of digital radio content.”

Multiple policy choices, however, will emerge from the rulemaking proceeding. One choice includes whether to authorize digital AM broadcasting at night as recommended by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), based on iBiquity tests conducted last year. The FCC withheld interim authority for AM stations to broadcast at night in digital until tests were conducted of nighttime first-adjacent-channel interference levels between local stations and distant clear-channel stations.

Also as part of its rulemaking, the FCC will codify the technical rules under which digital stations have been operating, said Struble.

Future FCC-approved services and possible future copy-protection technologies would not make early-generation radios obsolete, Struble noted. Future generations of radios, however, would be required to use the future services or to protect digital content.

Other topics that will be part of the rulemaking include policies that the FCC could implement to encourage stations to convert to hybrid digital/analog service and eventually to all-digital service, protect existing subcarrier services, such as reading services for the visually impaired and better response to community needs.

Community needs might be better served through multicasting of more diverse programming, but as Commissioner Michael Copps noted, letting one station multicast is equivalent to letting one company own multiple stations in a market. “What does it mean for competition of a company that would be permitted to own eight radio stations in a market also obtains the ability to multicast many more programming streams?” he asked.