Rant from Riverton: "AM for Every Vehicle Act" is flawed - we need a "Future of Radio Act"
AM Radio. It has been around since dirt was new. For decades, people's lives were made whole through radio in the same way that television did and now these days, the internet. AM radio brought us Dragnet, the Second World War and then eventually introduced us to the Beatles. AM radio was the driving force for many years.
First came television, the industry feared AM would be the end. It wasn't.
Then came FM radio, the industry feared AM would be the end. It wasn't.
Then came Ford, the industry feared AM would be the end. It would be just the new beginning of the true end.
The subject of AM radio has been in the news lately, especially after one of America's largest automakers announced that they will eventually be dropping the band from new vehicle models, including from vehicles with combustion engines. Even more makers are planning to drop AM from electric vehicles.
There is currently bipartisan support for legislation that would protect AM radio in vehicles. The AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act of 2023.
The law, if passed and enacted, would require the Department of Transportation to initiate a rulemaking proceeding that would implement regulations that would require AM radios be required in standard equipment in all motor vehicles manufactured or imported into the United States as well as those "shipped in interstate commerce". The presence of AM radio must be conspicuous to the driver. In the interim while the rulemaking is being worked out, auto manufacturers would be required to place labeling on their vehicles to warn purchasers that the vehicle does not include an AM radio.
Overall, this sounds like great legislation to save AM radio. Honestly, It should actually be part of a "Future of Radio Act", which we will talk about in a bit.
The version of this bill that I read on May 18, 2023 has some language in it that could cause this bill to backfire and do more serious harm to AM radio, even for those not wanting to listen in their car.
The current version of the bill allows automakers to satisfy the requirement by installing a radio that can receive signals and play content transmitted by digital audio AM broadcast stations. The bill defines a digital audio AM broadcast station as one that uses HD Radio, but for some strange reason excludes digital only AM stations from that definition.
It is understandable that a digital only option would be considered as HD Radio is less vulnerable to noise sources created by the vehicle.
Many of us remember back in the early days of HD Radio on AM that stations operating the system in the MA1 hybrid mode was creating a lot of adjacent channel noise, which was very pronounced at night. This caused many AM stations to turn off their HD systems while others would only run HD during the daytime and then shut it down at night.
Let's say a company like Tesla was to take the "digital only" option, this would mean that in order for their vehicles to receive AM radio, the AM station would have to run HD. Under today's environment where most AM stations are not running HD at night or at all, the radio would only be able to receive a small number of stations and even less at night. Not only will this encourage more AM stations to install HD radio (which is a huge investment, especially for cash-strapped smaller stations) it will encourage more AM stations to restore their hybrid HD services, both day and night.
While the all-digital MA3 mode of AM HD Radio behaves much better than MA1 AM hybrid HD Radio, the mode was specifically excluded from the definition of digital AM radio in the legislation. This obviously was done in order to assure that stations running HD would not do so at the expense of their analog listener base.
This legislation was obviously promoted by "big radio" and does not take into consideration small radio stations, such as those in rural towns, some that still have "mom and pop" owner operators, that already have signals too weak to serve their communities at night to only have their signals further destroyed by adjacent channel stronger stations from more urbanized areas.
For these reasons, this bill is severely flawed as written. You can't always change science through legislation. If this bill was to truly save AM radio, it must not take actions that while it will preserve select well-funded stations on the dashboard, it should not do so at the expense of small market stations that are more capable of providing more local information during emergencies, especially to those using portable radios, including those that may only be used during bad weather or following an earthquake. The bill also discriminates against these small market broadcasters and other minority broadcasters that do not have the means to add HD Radio and as a result of such signals, contributes even more noise to the band making AM radio even more useless for countless Americans.
I cannot support this legislation as written.
It needs to be changed. Better yet, it needs to be a more omnibus legislation. A so-called "Future of Radio Act", or what we can call FORA. Here's what I can envision a FORA looking like:
Also implement an FM mandate with FM HD reception
Not only must there be an AM requirement for the dashboard, there should also be an FM requirement. That FM reception requirement should also include a requirement that digital FM signals (HD Radio) must be received. Large AM broadcasters should be using their co-owned FM stations to carry their AM programs on HD subchannels. They should not depend solely on their AM signal, which still must be able to be received in lower noise environments outside of vehicles.
Phase out AM MA1 hybrid HD and promote MA3 all-digital AM HD radio
Legislation must phase out MA1 hybrid HD operations, even if that phase-out only happens at night. A nighttime phase-out of MA1 must be well enforced by the Commission. There would be no change to the more efficient MA3 all-digital service. This will protect rural and other weaker signal AM stations to be able to provide their services without the risk of increased adjacent channel interference from MA1 operation, especially at night.
Expansion of the FM broadcast band through reallocation of TV Channels 5 and 6
The legislation should include a mandate that all vehicles manufactured or imported in must include, in that FM receiver, reception capability, on a single band, from 76.1 through 107.9 megahertz (MHz) and that there would be a "fast" sunset of secondary TV facilities on RF Channels 5 and 6 and a "slow" sunset of primary TV facilities on RF channels 5 and 6. The spectrum at Channels 5 and 6 (76.1~87.9) would then be recovered and used for an expansion of the FM broadcast band where smaller AM broadcasters would have the option to migrate their operations to a full-power FM facility operating in the expanded band. This would also include a slow sunset of FM translators being operated for AM stations that are making a transition to the extended FM band. The use of 76.1~87.9 for FM broadcasting is a part of a Western Hemisphere initiative to expand the FM band and transition AM stations over. This has already begun in Brazil and is spreading to other South American nations. CITEL, the international agency that manages spectrum in the Western Hemisphere has already recommended that 76~88 MHz can be used for sound broadcasting expansion.
Most TV stations in the United States have transitioned out of the VHF low band channels (2 through 6) and have moved to high VHF (channels 7 through 13) and UHF (channels 14 through 36). Very few antennas are manufactured these days that are capable of efficiently receiving signals on the low band channels and that spectrum is better for FM broadcasting. The use of the low band spectrum has been rejected by nearly every country in the world except the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Modernize the FM broadcast rules to reflect evolving receiver technology and improve rural opportunities
Our FM technical rules are based on very old and inefficient receiver technology when analog circuitry was used to select stations. While such analog functionality is still used in some receivers, most modern equipment uses electronic methods of tuning, which makes a receiver more selective and better able to reject interference from nearby frequencies.
For smaller rural FM facilities, such as those with average service areas of less than 11.6 miles (18.6 kilometers), regulations must waive the requirement to protect radio stations protect other stations on third-adjacent channels. In addition, for stations with average service areas of 8.3 miles (13.3 kilometers) or less, regulations must waive the requirement to protect radio stations on second-adjacent channels.
In order to receive the third-adjacent waiver, the population in the area of second and third-adjacent overlap may not represent more than 2% of the population of the service area of each second and third-adjacent channel station being overlapped, but never more than 6,000 persons.
In order to receive the second-adjacent waiver, the population in the area of second-adjacent overlap may not represent more than 1% of the population of the service area of each second-adjacent channel station being overlapped, but never more than 3,000 persons.
There may be additional ideas that can help the future of broadcast radio and keeping radio relevant no matter how big or small the station or the market is. It is time for the NAB to stop their fighting within the service, there is a much bigger issue we need to face and it will impact all of us. It is time (actually, it is overdue) for LPFM and the NAB to come together for the FUTURE OF RADIO.
More details of these concepts
How would this affect each broadcast service?
Low Power FM
Protections already eliminated through Local Community Radio Act of 2010
All qualifying stations.**
FM translator stations
Qualifying stations operating up to the equivalent of 0.25 kW at 201 meters HAAT.
Qualifying stations operating up to the equivalent of 0.25 kW at 107 meters HAAT.
Class D FM stations (including Alaska)
All qualifying stations.
All qualifying stations.
Reserved band (88.1~91.9) noncommercial educational broadcast stations
Qualifying stations operating up to the equivalent of 1 kW at 100 meters HAAT.*
Qualifying stations operating up to the equivalent of 0.286 kW at 100 meters HAAT.*
Non-reserved band (92.1~107.9) full-service FM broadcast stations
Qualifying Class A stations operating with a service contour of 18.6 km or less (rounded to the nearest tenth kilometer) that still meets §73.215 minimum distance separations.
Qualifying Class A stations operating with a service contour of 13.3 km or less (rounded to the nearest tenth kilometer) that still meets §73.215 minimum distance separations.
* - Reserved band FM stations on 91.5, 91.7 and 91.9 must meet §73.215 minimums to FM stations on 92.1, 92.3 and 92.5.
** - This would require an amendment of Section 3(b) of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010.
My proposed amendments to the LCRA
Proposed LCRA §3(1)(b)(1) language
(A) The Federal Communications Commission shall not amend its rules to reduce the minimum co- and first- and second-adjacent channel separation specified distances pursuant to 47 CFR §73.807(a) in effect on January 4, 2011 between low-power FM stations with a service contour not exceeding 5.6 kilometers and full-service FM stations.
(B) The Federal Communications Commission shall not amend its rules to reduce the minimum co- and first- and second-adjacent channel separation specified distances pursuant to 47 CFR §73.807(b) in effect on January 4, 2011 between low-power FM stations with a service contour exceeding 5.6 kilometers and full-service FM stations upon a satisfactory showing that the low-power FM station meets the interference protection and remediation requirements of 47 CFR §§ 74.1203 and 74.1204 in effect on the date of this Act.
Editors note: This is intended to keep the existing LP-100 service status quo and will introduce a service with technical flexibility to use a contour overlap (translator) model for specifying an LPFM facility that would be larger than an LP-100 facility but does not exceed that of a proposed LP-250 facility.
Proposed LCRA §3(1)(b)(2)(A) language
IN GENERAL - Notwithstanding paragraph (1), the Federal Communications Commission may grant a waiver of the second-adjacent channel distance separation requirement to low-power FM stations that establish, using methods of predicting interference taking into account all relevant factors, including terrain-sensitive propagation models, that their proposed operations will not result in interference to any authorized radio service in cases where the population within the area of second-adjacent channel overlap that exhibits an undesired to desired ratio greater than 40 dBu does not exceed one percent of the population, but never more than 3,000 persons, within the service contour of the impacted station.
Editor's note: This would permit a second-adjacent channel waiver where the impacted population within the "overlap zone" does not exceed 1 percent of the affected station's service contour population. This would permit the applicant to use the manufacturer's specification for the antenna (horizontal and vertical patterns) to reduce the overlapping population.
Proposed LCRA §5 language
The Federal Communications Commission, when authorizing new and modified FM translator stations, FM booster stations, and low-power FM stations, shall ensure that (1) licenses are available to FM translator stations, FM booster stations, and low-power FM stations; (2) such decisions are made based on community need as defined in Section (7)(B) of this Act; and (3) FM translator stations, FM booster stations, and low-power FM stations remain equal in status and secondary to existing and modified full-service FM stations.
Editor's note: This proposed language would now require the FCC to assess the community need for any modification (site move) of any translator, LPFM or FM booster station.
LCRA §7 repealed and replaced with new language
SEC. 7. DEFINITIONS
(A) A low-power FM station is considered a noncommercial educational facility operating on 87.5 through 107.9 MHz with a maximum effective radiated power of 250 watts that includes a 60 dBu service contour that does not exceed 7.3 kilometers in the Continental United States east of the Mississippi River and in the State of California south of 40 degrees north latitude; and a service contour that does not exceed 13.3 kilometers in all other areas regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
Editor's note: This language establishes our previously proposed LP-250 and LP-250 PLUS services. It also makes 87.5 through 87.9 available for LPFM use.
(B) Community need is defined as assuring that no more than 50 percent of spectrum used by or otherwise available for low-power FM stations and FM translator stations are utilized by either service. For FM booster stations, community need is achieved through when at least 60 percent of the FM booster 60 dBu service contour receives its primary station with a field strength of less than 54 dB based on terrain-based propagation models.
Editor's note: This language would be used to implement our proposed translator assignment policy in the Translator Reform Petition for Rulemaking. In the perfect world, LPFM and FM translators should have a 50/50 share of all available secondary spectrum. This language also assures that FM boosters are used solely for their original purpose of filling in gaps of coverage and not used over well served areas, especially for applications such as geo-targeting.