Summer is here, and our elected congressmen are working hard to improve everything that we do. The latest evidence of this is the telecommunications bill that is working its way through the Senate. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has made its changes and sent the work back to the full body for review. The House has already passed a bill with its version of updates for communications reform.
The Senate Committee considered several amendments to the bill and acted on three that are of interest to radio broadcasters: no provision for net neutrality; a provision to enable an audio flag in digital broadcasting; and removal of third-adjacent interference rules to allow more LPFM stations.
The net neutrality issue covers a broad range of interests that are not restricted to radio broadcasting. In general, the issue is currently an academic debate that seeks to ensure a level playing field for all content providers. It sounds benign, but it could present problems in time.
The audio flag element charges the FCC to create a review board to decide what an audio flag would constitute and how it would be implemented and managed. The audio flag — a broad term that covers content rights — is a long way from becoming a reality.
I'm all for protecting copyrighted content to allow the copyright owners to maintain appropriate control and receive their due benefits, but unfortunately some groups will push it too far. The issue could balloon and become too restrictive, effectively killing any digital transmission technology because of the restrictions in digital storage and transmission.
The item that really concerns me deals with third-adjacent channel interference protection to FM stations. The Senate bill is far from being a final bill awaiting a Presidential signature, but this item uses a technical means to address a social concern.
The proponents of low-power FM (LPFM) have long cried that there are too few voices on the airwaves. LPFM advocates believe that the answer is to open the spectrum and let everyone have a radio station. Doing so will provide the diversity of voices that the LPFM movement seeks. Unfortunately, the argument that we need diversity of voices will probably push the amendment all the way through, regardless of any other technical issue.
Don't misunderstand me. I support diversity in the content available over the airwaves, but I also support the continued development of a digital transmission standard. To force diversity by changing the RF landscape could cause more problems than it solves and further hinder a digital radio transition. I said this several years ago when FCC Chairman Kennard began the LPFM process.
That said, perhaps allowing more LPFM stations isn't a long-term problem at all. Maybe we should let the band become flooded with LPFM stations. Frankly, most will run out of something to say within weeks, or they will realize that filling a program stream 24/7 is a great deal of work. Once the LPFM stations turn to satellite feeds or brokered programming, they should surrender their licenses.
The other possibility is that IBOC will become the standard and all the LPFMs will need to upgrade their facilities to be heard. Most will probably not be able to afford the equipment or the licensing. Problem solved.
Are the third-adjacent channel protections really necessary? Probably not, but Congress needs to let the FCC do its job based on the overall plan that it (hopefully) has in place. Let the House and Senate raise their concerns, but let the FCC conduct its own business.