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The consequences of all-digital AM: an amateur operator’s view

As of this writing, almost no comments have landed in the Federal Communications Commission’s docket on AM reform, save the interesting ones of amateur radio operator Nickolaus E. Leggett. Some of his remarks focus on the consequences, as Leggett sees them, of converting the whole AM system to a digital operation. There is “a specific problem for every user of existing AM radio receivers” if the band goes all digital, Leggett advises.

#digitalAMThe FCC doesn’t formally recommend this in its proposals to improve the AM service, but the agency suggests that the idea requires “additional comment, research, and analysis.” Radio scholar John Anderson interprets that as “a green-light action that HD Radio proponents need to start the regulatory campaign toward an all-digital transition.”

In his first filing, Leggett makes the case for AM radio as a democratic medium—easy to access during emergencies and available to all regardless of income. In his second filing he constructs a taxonomy of all digital AM consequences.

First, an all digital conversion “will make the existing stock of AM radio receivers useless,” Leggett warns:

“The simple diode detectors of the conventional AM radios will not be able to process the digital signals. This will impose a significant cost on all users of AM radios in the home, in portable uses, and in our cars. Literally millions of radios would become obsolete. For most of these radios, digital to analog signal converters (like those used for the digital TV conversion) would not be practical.”

Second, an all-digital regimen “will impact heavily on the numerous collectors of old and antique radios.”

“These radios range all the way from the crystal set era in the early 20th Century up through the AM radio receivers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The cash value of these AM radios will be significantly reduced if there are no broadcast stations that they can receive. In this situation, the radio collectors would be forced to operate their own Part 15 AM ‘broadcast stations’ (low power devices) where they would transmit recordings of period music to their own collection of radios. Some organizations of radio collectors may even petition the Commission for authorization to operate traditional AM broadcast stations to serve the classic radios in a given city or cities.”

Third, sunsetting existing AM radios “will also hit hard at the young people who would otherwise be introduced to radio electronics by the simple AM radio kits and do-it-yourself projects.”

“The simple crystal set or one-transistor radio kit would be replaced by rather baffling introductory digital radios that will not provide an effective introduction to the operation of discrete radio components. The whole subject of radio electronics would become shrouded in a cloud of digital mystery with little opportunity for the growth of basic real electronics knowledge. Few youth would learn about the actual flow of electrons in an electronic circuit. This would be a loss for the future of American engineering.”

Leggett concedes that short wave radio might fill this educational void, but “even this adaptation would be inhibited by the widespread prohibitions on outdoor antennas established by condominium associations and home owner associations here in the United States.”

Much of “the spirit of radio operation” would be inhibited by all-digital AM, Leggett concludes; that is, “by replacing the aesthetic appeal of AM radios using discrete radio components (such as resistors, capacitors, inductors, and tubes/transistors) with black box digital integrated circuits.”

Even if you disagree with some of these warnings, they shed light on the degree to which an all digital AM conversion, like any such process, would initiate a series of social trade offs. The question is whether the trades would be worth the effort and expense, and for whom.


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4 Responses to The consequences of all-digital AM: an amateur operator’s view

  1. John Bruce November 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    The real culprit is the IBOC (In Band On Channel). Europe and Australia use a completely different band and digital modulation, it works, there is no interference to existing AM or FM frequencies. From what I see every AM station can get a spot on the Digital band. The AM band is left alone… I definitely agree that AM is the easiest radio form of communication to receive, other than CW.

    • HenningBjerre November 21, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

      IBOC is iBiquity’s brand of Digital in America. Both IBOC & DRM use a Hybrid of Analog & Digital so older analog receivers can be used as well as the new digital receivers hence the HD (Hybrid Digital). Over time as everyone gets these new digital receivers, the switch to 100% digital will eventually be made. However digital AM is clearer but the interference is in a form of quiet audio signal drop.

  2. Bob June 10, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    It would appear that this all-digital shift is nothing more than ‘change for change sake.’ The proprietor of this system would make a hell of a lot of money, then what is left for the rest of us? I’m a small AM broadcast operation with a broadcast community that relies on what we broadcast. How do I afford such a transition? Why should this be forced on all of us? Will I have a guarantee of success? This AM digital transition is a scam! Why don’t we let the public decide if they want this? Then we can best determine what would be best for AM revitalization.

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    […] The consequences of all-digital AM: an amateur operator's view Radio Survivor As of this writing, almost no comments have landed in the Federal Communications Commission's docket on AM reform, save the interesting ones of amateur radio operator…  […]

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