The Federal Communications Commission plans two innovations that will transform the way we listen. The first, recently agreed to by FCC Chairman William Kennard and the other commissioners, would license about 1,000 low-power radio stations across the United States. The second is a digital radio technology called IBOC - "in-band on-channel," meaning the digital signal will be delivered in the same amount of bandwidth currently assigned to stations. IBOC promises FM radio that sounds like a CD and AM radio that is as clear as FM is now.
But the FCC's plans have drawn opposition from the broadcast industry. The whole thing boils down to greed and turf wars. The broadcast industry wants to exclude the new class of community radio stations so that the industry can reap ever larger profits. And that's just wrong.
Most of the 1,000 new low-power stations would be community-based. The FCC has received more than 3,000 comments in favor of this service from high schools and colleges, state departments of transportation, Red Cross chapters, city governments, church groups and organizations representing independent recording artists.
Not surprisingly, established broadcasters are opposed to the new competition. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), one of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups, is launching a court challenge to the introduction of the new community stations.
Why? An NAB report claims that the new low-power stations pose an interference problem with the proposed IBOC broadcasters. An engineering report from the creators of IBOC, however, seems to contradict those claims. And the FCC has made it clear that no new licenses will be issued in already overcrowded media markets.
What's really at issue is corporate greed. Consider the market for paging devices. These handy gadgets now are able to provide voice messages, e-mail, stock quotes and sports scores. They share the airwaves with FM signals. Pager signals are transmitted narrowly, at a very low power compared with radio broadcasts.
Digital radio could allow exponential growth in these pager services, if the low-power stations were excluded permanently. Such stations operate in the currently unallotted frequencies between the high-power commercial stations. If the smaller stations gained a foothold in these unused frequencies, it would squelch the apparent plans of commercial broadcasters to claim eminent domain over the as yet unallotted spectrum space.
To receive digital radio, all those 600 million American radios will have to be replaced eventually. Plans call for a transition period, during which IBOC signals will carry both analog (the current technology) and digital broadcasts in the same bandwidth. But an abundance of pagers in those same channels could interfere with IBOC broadcasts. The result would likely be radio reception no better than it is today.
Ah, but you could use that unused bandwidth between station signals. If you could get the community stations out, the paging services could be expanded without interfering with the new, improved digital broadcasts. Thus the conflict.
It would be a shame if we forgot the public-sector origin and uses of the radio waves. FM radio service was developed in the 1950s by the U.S. government at taxpayer expense. And the public owns the radio waves, even though lately government has been licensing them to corporations at fire-sale prices. Community broadcasting belongs on the air. To exclude smaller community stations for industry's sake would just be unjust.
Americans, be concerned. Our public airwaves are like real estate. God's not making any more.
Stephen DiLauro is a journalist, short story writer and playwright who lives in the Philadelphia area.
©2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.