Debunking the Prometheus Top 10 Problems with HD Radio

July 20, 2009


The Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of radio activists in 1998, builds, supports, and advocates for community radio stations. Primary the goals of the organization are to "demystify technologies, the political process that governs access to our media system, and the effects of media on our lives and our communities." Unfortunately, its effort to demystify the technology is not always accurate.

For example, the group recently posted a document titled Top Ten Problems with HD Radio. This document attempts to show the flaws with the HD Radio system, however, there are flaws in the Prometheus logic and science.

This references the Prometheus article. While portions are copied here, the complete text is available at the Prometheus site. The Prometheus questions are included, but only part of the Prometheus answer may appear.

1. If you don't already own a radio station, HD Radio isn't for you.
Prometheus says "In its current form, HD Radio is available only to the tiny world of incumbent broadcasters." Actually, it's available to any AM or FM broadcast who licenses the technology. The group tries to paint low-power stations as being a completely different technology than full-power stations. It's all the same spectrum and all the same transmission technology. The 'in it's current form' is an easy way for Prometheus to give itself a way out of this argument.

Prometheus also claims "But with no risk of competition from new entrants, HD radio isn't likely to have programming that's all that much more diverse than what you already hear. HD Radio (as it's currently conceived) doesn't open media access to new voices." First, HD Radio wasn't designed to provide access for new voices on the airwaves. It was designed to digitize and enhance existing services. Second, with the addition of multicasting, FM stations with HD Radio could provide alternative programming if they want. Because radio broadcasting is a business (even for non-profits) with real costs to operate, there has to be some level of mass appeal. I agree that many stations are overly conservative in their programming choices, and multicasting provides a way to loosen that grip.

2. It doesn't actually work yet.
It doesn't? 1,200 stations are on the air right now.

The better statement would be 'It's doesn't work perfectly yet.'

We already know that digital coverage is sometimes less than analog coverage, although the digital coverage at -20dBc usually meets the protected contour. The idea of increasing the digital sidebands to as much as -10dBc will extend the digital coverage indoors and help emulate the coverage beyond the protected contour.



3. To make it work, digital broadcasters want to drown out everyone else.
This references the sideband power increase. Prometheus has latched on to the opponents who ask for more data and research. And while increased sidebands can cause interference to adjacent channels, the idea is that the hybrid mode of HD Radio operation is temporary. It also looks for all radio stations to use HD Radio technology.

4. Low power community radio risks losing the most.
Prometheus is protecting its own interests with this statement. Prometheus also says that "The same industry broadcasters who claim LPFMs will cause interference are claiming that HD Radio, already more powerful than LPFM, is no problem." Prometheus is ignoring the situation of existing stations adding HD Radio compared to new, shoe-horned LPFM stations.

5. Tons more stations, but no new public interest obligations.
Prometheus says, "With the advent of digital technology, there's room for many new stations on the dial (though all owned by the same broadcasters as the old stations, thanks to IBOC)." Well, sort of. If the entire radio spectrum were refarmed and a new digital transmission system applied, I agree that there could be more stations. That won't happen. Even if it did, IBOC wouldn't automatically hand the new stations to the existing broadcasters.

Prometheus goes on to play the serving the public interest card, saying that HD Radio gives existing broadcaster more spectrum but does not require more public service commitment. The commitment is the same because the spectrum is the same.

Prometheus wants the FCC to require full-power digital stations to "donate a portion of their new revenues to a public interest fund" or "share a portion of their new bandwidth with noncommercial, educational groups" or "produce eight hours of local programming per day." Donate revenue? I doubt it. Produce eight hours of local programming per day? That's not a terrible idea, but 'local programming' is as simple as a DJ playing music. Provide air time to noncommercial groups? That has some merit, and multicast makes it possible.

Prometheus apparently does not understand how HD Radio works when it says, "The spectrum used by HD Radio is another slice of the public pie served up to the private sector, for free." It's the same amount of spectrum. It's just used in a different way.

6. Anonymous interference.
Prometheus says, "Unlike regular interference between analog radio stations, interference from an HD [Radio] station just sounds like white noise, so there's no way for listeners to identify the problem station. With no way for listeners to complain, the FCC probably won't ever hear about most HD-caused interference."

And we all know that low-power stations are so good about identifying themselves as well. They can be even harder to find than full-power stations. And many of them do not operate full-time, so the interference they cause is intermittent.



7. The future of radio is entrusted to a single company.
It's a single technology developer for HD Radio, I agree. But anyone can step up -- and already have. Leonard Kahn has tried to develop an AM system. Digital Radio Express has developed FM Extra.

Prometheus says the "FCC decided to go with a proposal from Ibiquity." After several years of filings, yes. Prometheus ignores that fact that Eureka 147 was considered at one point. In the early days, there were several systems being developed, but the current Ibiquity system is what remains.

Prometheus claims, " IBOC [is] limited to the in-crowd of industry broadcasters." No, it's available to anyone who wants to license it. We know it's not cheap, and Prometheus doesn't like that either. Prometheus calls it a monopoly. It's not a monopoly because it's not mandated.

8. Proprietary software keeps this new technology shackled.
Continuing the monopoly cry, Prometheus calls the "proprietary software structure" of HD Radio an "outdated business model that prevents others from 'checking under the hood' or contributing ideas that might improve digital radio." Actually, the NRSC recommendation does not force anything to Ibiquity. It specifies a system that Ibiquity has developed, but it could be implemented in other ways. Is that simple to do? No.

Ibiquity stepped up to create a system. Others have tried but have not yet achieved the same success.

9. HD radios are expensive.
The first device of any new technology is expensive. The price will come down. We already have a portable FM HD Radio for $50. Prometheus is quick to point out that HD Radio doesn't work, but doesn't acknowledge that it has seen dramatic improvements in the past 10 years.

10. What kind of future is this, anyway?
Prometheus gets into its finest name calling at this point by saying "Leave it to the broadcasting industry that brings you channel after channel of the same garbage to propose a digital future with no new ideas."

Prometheus brings up the proposal from the Broadcast Maximization Committee to use TV channels 2 through 6 for radio. This idea is on the table, and while it offers some advantages to provide a new digital service without harming the existing analog service, it creates a logistic problem for the broadcasters who may be moved to the new spectrum. There are no radio receivers available there. It only transplants a problem, It does not solve it.

The one point that Prometheus raises that has some merit is to institute added public interest obligations. While there is some merit to the idea of requiring broadcasters to share bandwidth with non-comm groups, that is harder to implement.

While Prometheus hopes to demystify digital radio, we'll continue to clarify the group's misinformation.



Comments