FCC invites preliminary comment on Geo Broadcasting proposal for program origination by FM boosters.

Now that the DTV transition has been in effect for almost three years, multi-channel TV broadcasting is fairly commonplace.  But what about FM radio?  Thanks to digital FM technology designed by iBiquity and authorized by the FCC, FM stations have for years been able to provide up to two additional programming streams beyond their main channel.  And yet, development of an economically sound model for multi-channel audio services has been much slower than on the TV side.

Enter Geo Broadcasting Solutions, LLC (Geo).  The folks at Geo have come up with an alternative approach to multi-channel FM service.  They are proposing that on-channel analog FM boosters be permitted to originate programming separately from the parent station.  The concept is that each booster could transmit hyper-local material to the audience in its immediate vicinity – mostly commercial spots, but also other material if a licensee so desired. 

Boosters are like translators – low-power transmitters that permit licensees of full-power stations to improve the coverage of their full-power stations within their already protected contours.  The difference between boosters and translators is that a booster operates on the same frequency as the full-power station whose signal it is “boosting”.  Translators, of course, operate on different frequencies from their primary stations. (Boosters are authorized only to the licensee of the primary station and may not expand the primary station’s service area. Commercial translators funded by the primary station also may not expand the primary station’s service area – a restriction that does not apply to non-commercial translators or independently-funded commercial translators.)

Since boosters are on the same channel as the primary station, booster operation generally poses considerable potential for interference. That’s one reason why boosters have not been widely used over the years, even though the FCC’s rules have provided for them for more than four decades.  In recent years, however, modern computer control techniques allowing precise synchronization of the parent and booster signals have improved performance.  A quick glance at the FCC’s database indicates that a few hundred FM boosters are currently authorized.

Geo claims to hold patents on techniques that shape signal coverage to avoid interference both (a) between a booster and its parent station and (b) between multiple boosters each rebroadcasting the same parent.  According to Geo, its technology will allow the insertion of separate material into the programming on each booster.  In other words, a licensee with multiple boosters could include different programming on each separate booster – allowing the licensee to direct different content to specific areas within its main station’s primary contour.

Geo says in its petition for rulemaking that it has conducted successful tests of the technology in Utah and Florida (thanks to experimental authority granted by the Commission).  Armed with that experience, Geo is now formally proposing that the FCC amend its rules to authorize booster origination on a regular basis.  The Commission has, in turn, invited preliminary comments on Geo’s petition.  Any comments – whether supporting or opposing the proposal – are due by May 23, 2012.  (Note: This is a very preliminary stage.  The Commission has not yet issued a formal proposal – i.e., a “notice of proposed rulemaking” – with respect to Geo’s petition, and it may never issue such a proposal.  The present commenting opportunity just gives interested parties the chance to chime in with their initial views on whether to kill Geo’s concept before it multiplies or take it to the formal rulemaking stage.)

Geo’s technology would not eliminate some of the practical concerns in booster operation.  For example, it would still be necessary to choose booster sites carefully.  At least in today’s analog FM radio world, boosters should generally be shielded by terrain from the parent station, so that any individual listener will not receive a strong signal from more than one source at the same time.  Many areas do have terrain obstacles, though; the Geo concept might prove useful in such situations.

Beyond the technological questions, there is a more fundamental business question: does targeting for one or more micro-audiences make sense?  Newspapers have tried hyper-local inserts with only mixed success.  But newspapers have to bear the ongoing costs of printing and distributing separate editions to provide micro-area advertising services.  For radio stations, the process would be entirely electronic.  Beyond the one-time cost of obtaining hardware and software (and obtaining the necessary FCC authorizations), broadcasters’ expenses would be largely limited to ongoing personnel costs to sell and produce extra spots for target areas. 

Before we wade into that level of cost-benefit analysis, though, we should wait to see what the engineering community thinks.  If the Geo proposal gets through the technical gate, then station owners will have to ponder the economics.