The vote was unanimous, though at least one commissioner expressed concerns over the details of technical standards.
While the decision to issue the NPRM is not surprising, given the announcement of a couple of weeks ago, the vote seems to mark a significant advance toward an outcome where AM owners would have the digital choice. Only one U.S. radio station, owned by Hubbard Radio, operates full-time in all-digital, and does so under special temporary authority.
Advocates think having an all-digital option would be a boon to AM stations, many of which are troubled by economic challenges, band noise and lack of listener interest. Some see it as a logical addition to the AM revitalization effort, bringing benefits like metadata displays that most AM stations currently don’t have, in addition to better sound quality. And some observers, if fewer in number, wonder whether widespread migration to all-digital could substantially revitalize the AM band someday, making it prime spectrum real estate again.
Anecdotally, some critics have worried that a change that would make most existing receivers unable to hear a given radio station is premature, and/or they have voiced worries over the interference implications. That’s a touchy subject, given HD Radio’s less than stellar reputation among AM engineers, dating to the early days of putting hybrid digital on AM. The NPRM process should give more insight into what opposition may exist, if any, and from whom. It should tell us more about how AM owners themselves, big and small, come down on the idea.
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