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Proceeding with digital radio

With no Grand Alliance of their own in sight, the proponents of digital radio must decide by May 8 whether to go along with independent testing of the likely standard for the next generation of FM and AM broadcasting.

The standard-setter-the Digital Audio Broadcasting Subcommittee of the National Radio Systems Committee-on April 8 agreed that results of testing conducted by Lucent Digital Radio Inc. and USA Digital Radio show promise for digital radio via in-band, on-channel technology, known as IBOC. In fact, the companies "demonstrate[d] a reasonable probability of substantial improvement" over the analog sound of the current AM and FM bands, and independent testing is the next step, the subcommittee concluded.

Lucent and USADR are vying to set the digital radio standard using what is somewhat different IBOC technology, says David Layer, director of advanced engineering for the science and technology department of the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB co-sponsors the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC) along with the Consumer Electronics Association.

While the NRSC's subcommittee agreed to proceed with independent IBOC testing, it doesn't look as though the tedious process will be eased by Lucent and USADR's agreeing to go into it together.

"They both seem like they're competing," Layer said after attending an April 8 panel session at the NAB 2000 convention in Las Vegas during which representatives from both companies spoke. "It doesn't sound like they're ready to merge, if they ever will be." That would be unlike the process that led to the setting of the digital television standard in 1995. Competitors then united in the so-called Grand Alliance.

Asked last Wednesday whether Lucent and USADR might work together, Lucent Digital Radio President Suren Pai said, "Your guess is as good as mine." However, he added, "Let's go through this process [and] see how it evolves. Whatever makes business sense ... we're absolutely committed to doing."

A USADR official was not available for comment last Wednesday. In a statement, the company says it is "gratified" by the NRSC's conclusion and that it "looks forward to working with the NRSC and other interested parties" to establish an IBOC digital radio standard.

USADR and Lucent have until May 8 to let the subcommittee know whether they will agree to independent tests.

This next stage of testing essentially will set the digital radio standard. While the FCC could seek something different from one of the IBOC systems, observers generally consider IBOC the only way to go at this point.

Privately held Lucent says it is so far along that it was able to announce successful over-the-air tests of IBOC last Monday at NAB. The tests were conducted at three stations: KNPR(FM) Las Vegas and WPST(FM) Trenton and WBJB-FM Lincroft, both N.J. Live demonstrations were conducted at the convention via National Public Radio affiliate knpr.

The tests showed that not only is IBOC, with its CD-quality sound, better than analog but "there is no demonstrable interference" with the current analog signal, Lucent said. That is important to broadcasters that will carry both digital and audio radio signals for as long as it takes for both consumers and the industry to convert to a completely digital system.