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Radio AM to FM: July 2, 1999

More Digital News

Proving that radio broadcasting as we know it may soon change for the better, USA Digital Radio and Kenwood Corporation have announced an agreement to design and market radios capable of receiving what is known as In-Band, On-Channel (IBOC) broadcasts using an IBOC standard designed by USA Digital.

USA Digital is the company behind one of a handful of IBOC systems being studied by broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission, and is the first to announce such an agreement with a major manufacturer. Many observers feel that such agreements are vital to the future of IBOC broadcasts and perhaps the future of the AM and FM bands themselves.

IBOC stands for exactly what it is: digital signals being sent "in band" (AM or FM) on the same channel (frequency) as the regular analog signal. While a traditional AM or FM radio would receive a radio station normally, one capable of receiving IBOC signals would be able to produce CD or near CD-quality sound by processing the digital portion of the broadcast.

With IBOC, AM would be essentially on par with FM as far as sound quality goes -- due to station spacing and IBOC requirements, AM digital appears to have a high-frequency cutoff of 15,000 Hz compared with FM digital's 20,000 Hz (and analog FM's current standard of 15,000 Hz). It is unknown if AM digital would maintain traditional AM's long-distance range advantage it currently holds over FM.

Kenwood is one of the top three receiver manufacturers worldwide. According to USA Digital Radio's Jeff Jury, this alliance, which includes broadcasters, broadcast equipment manufacturers, and now Kenwood "demonstrates both the broadcast and audio industry's commitment to bringing digital radio services and products to consumers everywhere."

Interestingly, as with Ford's and GM's agreements with CD Radio and XM to design and market radios that can receive satellite-delivered audio services (see last week's column), the agreement between USA Digital and Kenwood is not exclusive. In fact, Kenwood has also spoken with CD Radio and XM regarding similar agreements with those companies, and is not prohibited from making an agreement with USA Digital's main competitor, Digital Radio Express, which is working on an incompatible IBOC standard of its own.

If all this seems confusing, relax. All versions of IBOC broadcasting are still in the testing stages, and the FCC has yet to make a ruling on which will ultimately be the standard. In other words, regular AM and FM won't be going away any time soon, and (hopefully) all the bugs will be worked out before the first IBOC receiver even hits the market.

Still, I find it exciting that broadcasting technology has come so far that soon both AM and FM will sound like CDs. Most people probably won't notice much of a difference due to the limitations of human hearing, but still ...


Copyright © 1999 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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