July 2003

More of what -or is the technological fix a pipedream?.

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 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 receivers.

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 of listeners.

Those listeners.

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 functions.

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 change this.
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 necessary infrastructure.

What should be offered?

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 effort worthwhile.

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 will.

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 to LPFM.

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 station."

"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 or less."

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.

The way forward.

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 this.
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 your comments.

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