Matthew Lasar, su Ars Technica, affronta in questo pezzo la fase successiva all’approvazione da parte della FCC del merger tra XM Radio e Sirius Satellite, i due operatori di radio satellitare digitale negli USA. Sul piatto c’è una questione che la FCC aveva posto come requisito che il nuovo broadcaster avrebbe accettato una volta definite le opportune modalità: la “apertura” dei dispositivi riceventi. Per evitare monopoli di natura tecnologica, la FCC ha detto a Sirius XM: “per quanto mi riguarda potete fondervi in una unica entità, ma dovrete accettare la condizione per cui le radio che commercializzerete potranno essere utilizzate per ascoltare altri tipi di trasmissione.”
Ora la FCC ha lanciato una cosiddetta Notice of Inquiry per raccogliere i pareri su quali sistemi dovranno poter essere ricevuti con i dispositivi Sirius XM. Si sa per esempio che Ibiquity e Clear Channel avevano spinto molto per imporre HD Radio come sistema parallelo obbligatorio. Lasar osserva però che la FCC ha optato per una formula più sottile per questo suo referendum consultivo, una formula che le lascerà mano più libera nella decisione finale. Il Notice of Inquiry è diverso e meno vincolante dal Notice of Proposed Rulemakings, che invece prevede da parte del regolatore una esplicita proposta sui sistemi da approvare. Insomma, con il NOI la FCC chiede al mercato di esprimere un parere sui sistemi di radio e audio digitale da prendere in considerazione. Con l’NPR invece, la FCC avrebbe dovuto compiere una prima selezione e fare delle domande più mirate.
Il pezzo affronta anche il secondo vincolo che verrà imposto alla futura radio satellitare: quello di riservare una parte di banda a contenuti forniti da Qualified Entity. E’ una formula politically correct che in pratica comporterà per Sirius XM l’obbligo di trasmettere programmi per le minoranze etniche negli USA. Sembra che il Wall Street Journal abbia già attaccato la FCC su questo punto, perché in gioco c’è un problema di non poco conto: chi dovrà decidere quale entità potrà dirsi “qualificata” e su quali basi. Sirius XM ha già fatto capire di non voler essere lei a farlo. Il Journal, osserva divertito Lasar, già incavolato per le sanzioni che la FCC ha minacciato a Comcast, provider di Internet che aveva arbitrariamente deciso di limitare la banda destinata a servizi P2P, ora se la prende nuovamente con il commissario Martin accusandolo di voler fare il difensore delle minoranze solo per accattivarsi simpatie per la sua futura (presunta) carriera politica. E questo dopo essere stato nominato da un presidente di destra, Bush.
Infine Lasar accenna anche ai problemi della radio digitale terrestre e parla del confronto tra HD Radio (proprietario) e il DRM (più aperto) che verrà sperimentato adesso in Alaska su onde corte. Molto interessante devo dire.
FCC ponders forcing HD radio access with Sirius/XM devices
By Matthew Lasar | Published: August 26, 2008
There are still loose ends to tie up in the merger of Sirius and XM Satellite Radio. The Federal Communications Commission has gotten to one of them, launching a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on whether tuners built for the new entity should be required to feature Ibiquity HD Radio reception along with satellite radio.
As the FCC puts it, the agency wants to know “whether to require HD Radio or any other audio technologies to be incorporated into all [Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service] SDARS receivers and/or whether to require SDARS or any other audio technologies to be incorporated into all HD Radio receivers.”
In 2002 the Commission selected Ibiquity HD as the digital technology for AM/FM terrestrial radio, allowing broadcasters to transmit in both analog and digital mode. During the long debate over whether to allow Sirius and XM to marry (it’s called ‘Sirius XM Radio’ as of August 5th), many commenters urged the Commission to add an HD Radio requirement to the list of voluntary conditions to which the new entity had to agree.
Advocates of this proposal included HD Radio investor Clear Channel, three United States Senators, a host of public radio stations, and, of course, Ibiquity itself, which expressed concern that the unified broadcaster could edge the company out in receiver deals with car manufacturers. But some of the big car companies cried foul on the idea. GM and Toyota warned in mid-July that the proponents of the condition were asking for “an unprecedented requirement regulating the choice of entertainment technologies in an automotive environment,” which one presumes would not be good.
And so when the FCC approved the merger this month, it required Sirius XM to agree to an open device requirement for all new receivers, in which manufacturers may add any device plug-in of their choice to new satellite radio tuners. But the Commission ducked the Ibiquity mandate question, promising instead to launch this Notice of Inquiry instead. NOI’s differ from Notice of Proposed Rulemakings in that the FCC does not look for feedback on specific rules it would like to enact. The agency just asks the public for information and advice.
Among the NOI’s questions: How many multi-functional receivers already exist on the market? How many already feature two or more of the following: SDARS, HD Radio, iPod/MP3, and Internet capability? The agency also wants to assess the extent of consumer demand for Ibiquity, especially the demand for HD Radio in automobile radio receivers. The sixty-day comment cycle will begin after the FCC publishes its NOI in the Federal Register.
Racial real estate?
This is not the most potentially tendentious shoelace that the FCC will have to knot regarding Sirius XM Radio’s merger conditions. Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s editors published a rather surly piece titled “The FCC Plays Racial Landlord,” complaining about the “Qualified Entity” (QE) condition to which Sirius XM agreed. The company has pledged to reserve four percent of its full time channels on both the Sirius and XM platform to a QE or QEs—in other words, a minority broadcaster or broadcasters. But the new firm has also said that it will not be involved in choosing which broadcasters they will be.
The Journal’s editorial writers, already pissed off at FCC Chair Kevin Martin for his sanctions against Comcast for P2P throttling, cite reports that the Commission is working on procedures to decide who will pass muster as a QE.
“We look forward to seeing who the FCC deems to be ‘minority’ enough to qualify,” they write. “Meanwhile, this spectacle of a Bush appointee playing racial landlord is one to keep in mind when Mr. Martin begins his oft-mentioned run for elected political office.” Oft mentioned, it should be noted, by everyone except Martin himself.
Actually, the Commission’s Order on Sirius XM makes its definition of a QE pretty clear: “any entity that is majority-owned by persons who are African American, not of Hispanic origin; Asian or Pacific Islanders; American Indians or Alaskan Natives; or Hispanics.” No mystery here. The big conundrum is who exactly will decide which of the many groups that will apply for one of these channels will get them.
The Order also says that the agency will “determine the implementation details for use of these channels at a later date.” But the FCC’s go ahead requires Sirius XM to sign leases with these QEs within four months of the consummation of the merger, which happened over three weeks ago. So the shot clock is ticking.
An influential group in Washington, D.C., the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, promises that it will file suggestions on how to choose. But of one thing it is certain now: “MMTC doubts that the Commission itself can, or ought to, choose the non-licensee programmers.”
So who will? This discussion could get complicated.
DRM across Alaska
Meanwhile, some broadcasters hoping for an open access alternative to Ibiquity HD are cheering the FCC’s decision to issue an experimental radio service license permit to a station that will hopefully transmit across Alaska using Digital Radio Mondiale. DRM is “near FM quality,” it is often said—an international digital radio standard designed to broadcast in AM bands, in this case short wave.
There’s a more advanced standard called DRM+, intended for bands above short wave and as a competitor to HD Radio. DRM+ is not finished yet, but DRM boosters like Bennett Z. Kobb look forward to its completion because of its open standard provisions. “Every element of the [Ibiquity] broadcast chain, including not only equipment but the actual transmission of signals using HD requires a fee payment to the Ibiquity corporation,” Kobb laments, including an entry fee and percentages of profits.
DRM, on the other hand, has no “running” fees. There’s no fee charged to the station to broadcast using it; nor is there a license required from the DRM organization (although some DRM developers do charge for use of their code). Bottom line: you don’t have to get permission from the DRM organization to broadcast DRM.
When experimental station WE2XRH gets running in Delta Junction, Alaska (about 130 miles south of Fairbanks), the hope is to demonstrate statewide DRM capability on the short wave band. “In general, the population of Alaska is underserved with respect to the ability to have a high quality, reliable public radio audio service,” explains its founder, Digital Aurora Radio Technologies. “This is especially true for sparsely populated areas of the state.”