Digital Radio Teed Up

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As with digital TV five years earlier, the Federal Communications Commission's 2002 choice of digital-radio technology was the easy part.

Now comes the hard part of moving FM and AM into the future. Last week the FCC began examining a host of issues that must be resolved as radio stations launch digital broadcasts offering sound quality and multichannel capabilities comparable to improvements digital brings to television.

Under review are copy-protection measures that would restrict illegal duplication and redistribution of songs, the so-called broadcast flag for radio, solutions to problems with nighttime AM broadcasts, public interest obligations of digital radio stations, and the impact the digital switch will have on low power and noncommercial radio stations.

When it comes to copy protection, the FCC made clear it is only launching an inquiry,  a proceeding two steps removed from formal rules.

Rules covering most of the other issues could be set within a year. Officials at activist group Public Knowledge were gratified that copy-protection rules aren't yet on the drawing board. The recording industry "boldly declared that the radio [flag] would result in a 'buy button' on every radio, which consumers would have to use every time they want to record a song," said Mike Godwin, senior technology counsel. "This notion is completely at odds with the well-established rights of Americans to use digital media, and to enjoy broadcast radio content."

In October 2002, radio stations were given the green light to begin digital broadcasts using in-band, on-channel technology developed by iBiquity Digital Corp.

The technology allows digital broadcasts to air on the same channel simultaneously with existing analog broadcasts. Already, 300 stations in 100 markets are licensed to broadcast in digital. "These new services and capabilities will provide more opportunities to promote localism and diversity on our nation's airwaves and will give broadcasters a greater ability to compete with emerging satellite and Internet radio services,"  FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in endorsing the review last week.

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