| More of what
- or is the technological fix a pipedream?
New technology currently under development
could conceivably come close to eliminating spectrum scarcity and
allowing almost anyone to run a radio station but - there's always
a but - to us the real question is not so much as to whether the
development is possible but what would make it worthwhile.
Even if governments and manufacturers press ahead with the idea
(itself a big but), proponents seem too close in their optimism
to the dot.com enthusiasts whose dreams, as we all know now were
massively overblown and in many cases turned to ashes. In this case
also, we fear the dream may also be overblown although potential
benefits are genuine.
Let us however, assume for the moment, that the technology, which
eliminates much of the "dead time" in our current use
of spectrum by using software to allow information to be sent in
packets and hop from frequency to frequency with a receiver then
putting it all back together, is developed, that transmitters are
fairly cheap and that the same applies to receivers.
In some ways, of course, you might be thinking that to a considerable
degree that is exactly what the Internet already does and, as wireless
technology improves you will be able to receive Internet signals
on mobile devices from laptops to PDAs to mobile phones to what
if effectively a radio or to devices that combine these with audio
So the advance itself for an individual listener isn't all that
much above what exists already except possibly in the crucial elements
of convenient portable - and moderately priced - receiver. For the
broadcaster there is the benefit that, unlike a signal streamed
on the Internet, no extra bandwidth is required for large numbers
For the listeners the benefits are what?
A much larger number of channels? Not unique as that can already
be provided by the Internet.
A way to access these channels not possible with Internet
audio, specifically through portable devices? Maybe but wireless
developments could narrow the gap or even, combined with developments
to current devices such as cell phones, enable other devices
to become radio receivers as well as retaining their original
A means to receive without the costs associated with other
devices? Probably since new equipment would have to be purchased
but at the same time the subscriptions associated with mobile
phones would be eliminated. Wi-Fi developments however could
The benefits are thus not as clear as the optimists would
have them and they presuppose that the potential audience
will find the extra services make it worthwhile for them to
purchase receiving equipment.
So what can be offered by such a system that would persuade
large numbers of people to invest money in receiver purchases
- or demand such facilities in, say, their new mobile phone
- when they already have access to free from air analogue
signals and increasingly will have the same from digital signals
with improved technical quality and, in some countries at
least, more choice of channels.
Our first thought here is that it isn't going to do much good
offering more of the same as or similar to what is currently
offered by commercial formats: that would offer only marginal
benefits if any and certainly would not be enough to entice
listeners in sufficient numbers to produce investment in the
So what else should be offered? The advantages would seem greatest
in services for local communities where the benefits of broadcast
are of most use; for communities of interests, the Internet would
seem to have more advantages since it can tap into a worldwide
audience and thus aggregate enough of a community to make the
The question is whether for local communities the idea of broadcasting
has enough resonance to make the idea worthwhile pursuing or whether
the Internet can provide enough of a service and opportunity to
fatally undermine other options.
From the interest in Low Power FM in the US, in Access Radio and
restricted service licences in the UK and in community radio in
Australia and Canada, we think there is ample evidence of interest
in broadcasting over the airwaves as opposed to, or in addition
to, Internet services.
A matter of political
The differences in the countries noted, we
would suggest, however, are more a matter of political will
as technology, although geography also plays a part in that
airwaves are inevitable more crowded in densely populated
urban areas than sparsely populated ones.
In the US case, political lobbying by the US National Association
of Broadcasters, led to severe limitations on LPFM, thus massively
reducing its potential. The broadcasters in our view significantly
overplayed the likelihood of interference to commercial signals
A recent report from The Mitre Corporation, commissioned by
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), would certainly
seem to suggest this. The tests were conducted with a variety
of receivers and Mitre concluded, "LPFM stations can
be operated on third-adjacent channels with respect to existing
"Full Power" FM (FPFM) stations provided that relatively
modest distance separations are maintained between any LPFM
station and receivers tuned to the potentially affected FPFM
"These required separations are on the order of a few
tens of meters in the best case, to slightly more than a kilometer
in the worst case. MITRE has determined, based both on the
field measurements and its own theoretical analysis, that
no case of harmful third-adjacent LPFM interference will exist
outside of an area with a radius of 1100 m surrounding the
LPFM antenna, for an LPFM transmitter Effective Radiated Power
(ERP) of 100 W or less and an LPFM antenna height of 30 m
Therein lies the nub of the issue. If a society chooses to
be ruled by the material things in life those with money will
always have the power to call the tune, whatever the technology.
If however, it decides that matters other than financial are
of importance, then it has to have the political will to ensure
those matters are given some priority.
In the case of spectrum, it is leased to commercial interests
not sold to them: The leases need not be renewed but rather
than that a better way forward may be to use the leverage
that the threat of this gives to move in another direction.
We would suggest that in the long term software radio probably
does have a future if the details fall into place; in the
meantime existing technology can provide significantly more
channels and more access should there be the will to want
To a considerable degree we think low-power FM could be developed
significantly in the US; in some other countries community
radio is already developed more than in the US and digital
technology could provide additional resources for community
use (something we feel was a missed opportunity when developing
commercial digital radio in the UK).
Should objections from commercial interests be preventing
the development of community radio, the logical outcome is
not to await technological development but ensure that those
commercial interests have a vested interest in co-operating
rather than opposing such developments.
The obvious way in a commercial environment is a combination
of threat of losses and retention of, or increase in, benefits.
We would suggest therefore that those industries benefiting
from spectrum leases should, when a licence (lease) is renewed,
have to accept reasonable conditions that give them incentives
to co-operate with community needs.
In the case of major telecommunications players they already
have a vested interest in maximizing the use of spectrum since
that maximizes their potential for customer use; in the case
of commercial radio, the situation is somewhat different as
the current US players have already shown that they would
refer to hold on to what they have and minimize alternatives.
For them we would suggest that where commercial analogue frequency
is really going to be affected by LPFM - in the big cities
- the logical outcome is that the existing players should,
as a condition of retaining their privileges have to partly
fund the development of non-commercial community alternatives.
This could be done by subsidizing options such as a Internet/wi-fi
broadcasts to limited areas or, if this is not possible, requiring
stations collectively to free airtime segments for community
use in situations where stations genuinely fear interference
from LPFM operations.
If the concern was overblown, the stations can re-evaluate
following further studies, and allow LPFM; if not, they can
lose some airtime and associated profits.
What you think? Please E-mail