LPFM Digital Radio Experiment

by Chuck Conrad, KZQX-LP  www.kzqx.com

8/30/08 I spent Saturday afternoon with Lyle Henry, who is "The Radio Doctor."  He is a big advocate of FMeXtra, which is the alternate digital FM system that is available to broadcasters. 

Lyle was in our area and volunteered to come out here to see how FMeXtra works on a LPFM station.   As far as we know, it was a first.  It took us about 20 minutes to get the equipment out of his car, install it in a rack and put it on the air.  It was simple. I think that might make KZQX-LP the very first LPFM station to ever broadcast in Digital.  Then again, maybe not.  Does anyone know of an earlier attempt?

"So how did it work?" you ask.  "Pretty well," would be my answer.  We received a reliable FMeXtra signal in any location that we were also able to get a decent analog signal.  In locations where the analog was marginal, FMeXtra would disappear.  That did not surprise anyone.  It did work reliably to approximately our 55 dbu contour using a simple whip antenna. Connected to a Yagi pointed at the originating station, our 74 watt LPFM was doing fine in FMeXtra at roughly 14.5 miles away.  I think that is very acceptable performance.  It was a lot better than our analog signal does at that distance.

During the experiment, we fed the AES digital output of our Broadcast Warehouse DSP-Extra audio processor directly into the input of the FMeXtra encoder.  The noise floor was measured to be down over 90db.  The audio quality was excellent. I couldn't find much about this to not like. 

The FMeXtra signal also passed through a translator.  It did not seem quite as robust as the primary signal, but that may be because the translator's receiver could be rolling off higher frequencies.  We are not sure, but it seems like a logical explanation.  Still it was quite satisfactory.
Incidentally, we kept our RDS signal on during all this.  If we had chosen to lose the RDS, we suspect that the FMeXtra would be even more robust. 

This "science project" has confirmed my suspicions that FMeXtra is something that deserves much more consideration that it is getting.  It works.  It is affordable, and it doesn't create interference.  On the other hand, HD radio seems to be a very big threat to LPFM, translator and other relatively low powered stations, including rim-shots and Class A stations.  If the HD Alliance and NAB get their way with a proposed 10 dB power increase for HD, many of us will have some serious interference problems.

I have never checked to get an exact price.  It is sold by Bext, Energy Orix and Armstrong.  There may be others as well. When I first heard about the system, they were talking about $8500.  Somebody recently said it was $15,000.  I don't know which is accurate. Perhaps neither one. 

The good news is there is no licensing fee, now or ever.  You do not need to buy a new transmitter or antenna.  All you need is a program source and the encoder unit.  http://www.dreinc. com/products/ encoder.html

The public will have to buy special radios to receive it.  That is part of the problem, Right now there is only one radio available that I know of.  Because these are "software defined radios" there isn't much reason that an FMeXtra decoder algorithm couldn't be included into HD radios.  It's just software, and the radio is merely a computer with a speaker.  It just thinks it's a radio. 

The system is approved by the FCC because any use of your SCA channels is already approved.  Just think of it as "RDS with audio."  The good news with this is it is very high quality audio. It uses AAC+ encoding which sounds very good.  Depending on the bandwidth you are willing to give it, you can do up to 8 separate streams.  That is probably pushing the envelope, especially for music, but for "Talking Book" services, it could be very useful with multiple streams.  I can see how religious broadcasters could make very good use of this technology, especially in areas that tend to be multilingual. 

Will we be buying it soon?  Probably not, but maybe.  The reason for my current interest is to use it as a method of delivering very high quality audio to translators.  It seems like it could do that very well.  It would be even better if I could get a full power station to let us use their subcarrier with FMeXtra.  That would get a rock solid signal to each translator if we had the power and height of a regular broadcaster.  Unfortunately, I don't think any of the commercial stations are willing to share. 

Then again there is that Classical Music format to ponder.  A lot of people around here really want that format to return.  Those that do might be willing to actually pay for special radios.  Many of them could afford it. Stranger things have happened.

Who Supports LPFM ... and Why

By John Broomall, Christian Community Broadcasters

LPFM has four types of supporters:
(1) Current LPFM broadcasters who want to preserve what they have
(2) Current LPFM broadcasters who want to reach more people in the future
(3) Prospective LPFM broadcasters
(4) Localism and "social change" advocates

(1) Operators of LPFM stations are concerned they might lose everything because of full-power encroachment.  For them, second and third channel displacement options offer more relief than Primary Status.  If Congress or the FCC granted Primary Status, it would not be retroactive.  The FCC would announce, for example, that effective January 1, 2009, all applications, full and low power, would be treated on a "first-come first-serve" basis.  This would mean that full powers would be filing for minor mod upgrade through December 31, 2008

If future Primary Status is the only form of relief, that would mean that low powers could be displaced not only by operating stations but by all CPs and applications through the end of the year.  An application filed this year might result in a new interfering station five years from now.  If, however, low powers has displacement options not available to other station, a LP could "hide in the shadow" of a FP thus preventing future encroachment displacement.  A LPFM with frequency agile transmitter and a broadband antenna could change frequencies in five minutes.

(2) LPFMers who wish to reach more people in the future are interested in more power, new coverage patterns, and ownership of multiple LPFM and/or translator stations.  No one has suggested that current LPFMers be given priority rights over prospective rights.  If present and prospect low power groups had more power and the right to own multiple stations this would create many new MX pools that would not be resolved for years.  (Consider the massive MX mess created by the 2007 NCE window.)

(3) Prospective LPFM operators are competing for spectrum against all classes or current broadcasters plus all other "want-a-bees".  These new groups will not be well represented and do not understand the LPFM regulatory challenges.  Clearly the position of current operators is "me first."  However, a sacrificial (or frustrated) current LPFM station can no longer be sold if it has not be in operation for three years.

(4) Social change media advocates like Prometheus and Free Press oppose media consolidation and support "localism."  LPFM is just one of many options.  A community-oriented local AM could offer the diversity they seek.  Actually, if would appear that most LPFM broadcaster would like to have a full power station.  Thus it is surprising that more LPFMers did not apply during the October 07 window.  (Possibly many did apply but used different names, making it difficult to compile accurate statistics.

6/4 LPFM Industry Goals and Political Action
By John Broomall, Christian Community Broadcasters

What do LPFM broadcasters want from the FCC?  There are approximately 850 operating stations.  CCB asked 92 members of its online discussion group their opinions concerning the LPFM industry.  Thirty-two responded to date.  18 of these operate LPFM stations; 72% need more financial support, 40% need replacement / backup equipment and 35% need more volunteers.  

81% view the future of LPFM as "fair to good."  77% believe the industry needs a professional trade organization / lobbyist, and 62% are willing to pay $100 to $150 per year dues.  In addition to secular and Christian stations, 68% believe LPAM advocates should be included; 64% OK new entrant NCE groups.  The top goals are Primary Status (82%) while "more power" was a distance second with 43% 

While "more displacement options" gained less that 4% support,  several members of the discussion group believe that lobbying Congress to get the Community Radio Act of 2007 (remove 3rd adjacent limitations) should have top priority because this is already being considered.  Equally vocal members affirm that Primary Status should trump 3rd Adjacent.

At this point, we have no idea how much money can be raised or the cost of various proposed lobbying efforts for one or issues.  Which is more "winnable"?  Timing is critical.  Democrats and Republicans agree - there will be new Senators, Representatives, and Commissioners next year.

(90% say the CCB discussion group is their number one source of LPFM information.)


6/2 Trade Organization Planned for LPFM Operators
By John Broomall, Christian Community Broadcasters

For years LPFM operators have discussed forming a new independent professional organization on LPFM discussion groups such as ccbroadcasters@Yahoogroups.com  Currently I am conducting formal online survey of CCB clients and discussion group members.  This survey will be expanded and all 850+ LPFM operators.

Many ideas have been suggested.  One is that a database of LPFM information be formed that is more user-friendly than a blog.  CCB will provide this service until the organization is founded and has its own website and database.  The consensus is that the organization should be independent and not take a stand for - or against - programming (i.e. social and religious views aired).

Key questions have been raised, "who should the organization serve?" and "How should it be structured?"  Options include:
1. A "professional trade organization" for LPFM operators / advocates only
2. A "professional trade organization" for LPFM groups and other small / new broadcasters
3. Option "1" and/or a PAC (Political Action Committee)
4. Option "2" and/or a PAC.

As of today, 31 survey results from members of the discussion group  indicate: 
Of 30 respondents:
23 (77%) support "a professional organization with a paid lobbyist."  (no question was asked concerning a trade organization without a paid lobbist).
 7 (23%) say "no"

Of 27 respondents (multiple answers permitted): 
26 (96%) - the association should serve both secular and Christian groups
18 (67%) - LPAM advocates should be included 
17 (63%) - Part 15 advocates - supporters should be included.

Based on my wording of the questions, several people opposed to a organization still voted on "who should the organization represent?"!  Also, $100 was the typical answer concerning "annual dues."  At this point, we have heard from only 31 of 850+ LPFM broadcasters

If the new organization were incorporated, significant funds would be needed to get started.  Probably the cost of setting up a PAC would be even greater.  Members would be frustrated if their money was spent on structure and nothing left for the mission.  This would be like buying a new car and parking it because there was no money for insurance and gasoline!

Based on 27 responses, the top goals were "primary status" (82%), more power (44%), and the right to air commercials (33%).  New NCE organizations have more power and primary status; LPAM does not exist.  Would each of these subgroups approve their money being used to advance someone else's goals?

The "easy answer"" is to separately fund each goal or PAC.  There might not be enough money raised to properly lobby for one objective, let alone several.

What's in a Name?

The ideal name does not need to include the words "low power" (if you want small NCE operators to join) and should not be confusing similar to other groups.  What about Independent Broadcasters Association, National Community Broadcasters,  National Community Radio Association, American Community Broadcasters, or even Community Communicators Coalition?

P.S. Let's now finalize the name of the group until we actually start it.