Should the Government Undertake a Study of Digital Radio in the U.S.?


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Britain's Office of Communication has just released its first-ever digital radio progress report, and already the document is stirring criticism from UK DAB flamers who complain that the numbers provided seem overly optimistic in favor of DAB radio. That's possible, of course. Government agencies have been known to play fast and loose with data when they're trying to sell an idea to their constituents.

Even so, the concept of government taking steps to objectively assess the rollout of a key mass media technology like DAB seems like a responsible and rational approach to establishing policy. Which begs a question: Why not undertake a similar study here in the U.S.?

It's no secret to anyone following the progress of IBOC digital radio here that the process has been controversial. One source of friction stems from the fact that HD Radio is a proprietary technology that hasn't received universal acceptance within the industry. Consequently, each time iBiquity posts new figures for the number of HD stations on the air or receiver sales, their critics howl. With an obvious agenda on both sides of the IBOC debate, it can be difficult to separate hype from reality.

IBOC's rollout in the U.S. has been most notable in part because of the FCC's hands-off approach to implementing the technology. In fact, the Commission has done remarkably little in terms of testing and rulemaking, preferring to rely on ex-parte presentations and comments from the industry to guide policy. And that's not a bad thing.

But coming up with a detailed, accurate assessment of how well the technology fits our nation's needs is something else altogether. Because HD Radio is a proprietary system and a number of industry players have a vested interest in its success, their objectivity is open to question. The same holds true for radio owners who have chosen not to invest in the technology and want nothing to do with it.

Digital radio's adoption curve has yet to establish a knee. The radio industry in this country is struggling with structural financial issues that aren't going away any time soon, and competing technologies continue to nibble all around the margins. Serious questions are emerging about AM radio's short-term prospects with or without IBOC, and at least one FCC commissioner recently asked her colleagues to consider whether a new band for radio ought to be established. Yet radio is still the single most accessible media source in America. That makes its transition to new technology a vital national interest worthy of critical assessment.

As part of its core mission, the FCC is charged to operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity. Unfortunately, it is also susceptible to political pressure, so the best course of action might be for the agency to commission a study from a research university or foundation that holds no significant stake in the industry. The cost of such a study would be modest and likely could be grant funded.

Effective policy decisions are impossible without good, credible information. To that end, perhaps it's time for us to follow the UK's example and establish an annual benchmark for digital radio.




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