Thursday, October 10, 2002

Decision due today on new digital radio

Technological upgrade details are before FCC

By David Ho
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Generations of radio listeners have contended with static and flat-sounding music. But now, a new technology holds the promise of CD-quality sound for FM broadcasts and an end to AM's hiss, crackle and pop.

The Federal Communications Commission is to decide today whether to allow radio stations to broadcast digital signals and how they should do it. Digital radio's rollout could begin in a few months in some major cities, and consumers would start seeing digital receivers in car stereos and high-end audio systems next year.

Digital radio could be the biggest update to the medium since the debut of FM in the 1940s, said Ken Mueller, radio curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. Mr. Mueller said that like FM, which didn't become popular until the 1970s, “it's going to take quite some time to phase in.”

“We're not talking 30 years here,” he said, but “you have to wait until people start getting receivers to pick this up.”

Industry officials expect the FCC to approve a digital radio standard created by iBiquity Digital Corp., a company backed by large broadcasters including ABC and Viacom.

The transition to digital radio differs from the one planned for digital television. Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for broadcasters to switch to digital TV signals. After that, anyone wanting to watch over-the-air broadcasts will need a TV with a digital tuner or a set-top converter.

The iBiquity technology allows broadcasters to use their existing airwaves and simultaneously send digital and analog signals. Listeners won't have to buy a new radio to continue listening to their favorite stations, but will if they want better sound and other options.

Robert Struble, iBiquity's president and chief executive, likened it to the advent of color television.

“If you had a black-and-white TV and your local station started broadcasting in color, your black-and-white TV still worked,” he said. “But if you wanted the new high-quality picture you've got to buy a new color TV. It's the same with digital radio.”

Manufacturers will start taking orders in January for digital radios, which will first show up in high-end home audio systems and car stereos, adding about $100 to the cost of a unit, Mr. Struble said.

In addition to better sound quality, digital car stereos will allow listeners to choose to hear reports on stocks, sports, weather and traffic.

Some models will have small screens, displaying pictures of the artist whose song is playing, news or advertising, Mr. Struble said.

With models planned for 2004, listeners will be able to program the radio in advance to record broadcasts on a built-in hard drive.

Mr. Struble envisions future digital radios combined with cell phones or handheld computers. With global positioning system technology, digital radios could play music, news or advertising tailored to a listener's location.

Digital transmitters will cost radio stations on average about $75,000, Mr. Struble said.

Mr. Mueller said the cost is not a big deal for many stations, but some smaller operations may choose to forgo the expense.

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