Radio's theoretical saving grace is five years too late and by all the data we can see at Bridge Ratings, it will be a smaller consumer niche than satellite radio...if it continues down the path it is currently on.
And with the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent by American radio companies to upgrade their existing equipment for HD capable broadcasts, there is a dire need for HD to be the technically next great thing for terrestrial radio. But how does this get done?
The answer lies in taking a look at the FCC's mandate for HDTV and applying it to radio.
The FCC notified U.S. television broadcasters that the standard for transmitting TV over-the-air would permanently change from analog to digital. While there are many technical, political, and economic reasons for and implications of this change, the end-result for the American TV audience is a dramatic improvement in picture and sound quality.
According to the original FCC rules, all full power stations were to convert to digital by the beginning of 2007, followed by shutdown of analog broadcasting. An escape clause stipulated that 85% of receivers in the service area must be "capable" of receiving digital signals before the shutdown could occur. At the time of analog shutoff, one of the channels (digital or analog) would then be returned to the government, with the other channel remaining as a digital station; the freed spectrum could then be used for other TV stations, with UHF channels at the high end of the band being decommissioned and sold for other uses.
The 2007 deadline could not be satisfied under many interpretations of 85% "capability" of digital signal reception. So....
On February 8th, 2006, President Bush signed into law the "Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005". This law mandated a hard shut-off date of February 17, 2009 for the end of all analog (NTSC) TV transmissions in the U.S.
A similar hard shut-off date for the end of all analog FM radio must occur in order for HD radio to get past its current consumer growth doldrums. The forced shut-down of analog radio will give America the incentive to adopt HD radio.
Perhaps more importantly, like HDTV, a forced shut-off will force consumers to become more familiar with HD radio's offerings and benefits which will, in turn, motivate broadcasters to develop stimulating content.
This is really the only way to quickly stimulate the rapid adoption of this new technology. One wonders why this wasn't the FCC's plan all along. Why place a mandatory transition deadline on television stations and not radio?
Even our British broadcast neighbors are beginning to lobby their FCC equivalent (Ofcom, the Office of Communications) to turn off the FM band by 2015 in order to force British broadcasters to become digital. They have said they fear being antiquated in the face of all digital audio technologies.
They have a point.
What do you think?