RealTime IT News

HD Radio: New Chance for More Fed Regs?

WASHINGTON -- The music industry has a new digital bogeyman in its closet: high definition radio that lets users download and store music. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) wants Capitol Hill to do something about it.

AM and FM stations are currently rolling out HD radio throughout the United States, promising improved listening quality, multi-casting and the prospect of downloading digital tunes. Another battle in the digital copyright wars has been joined.

"Our concern is not over the rollout of HD radio itself, but rather the advent of new digital radio services and devices that will effectively turn radio into a music library, without paying the fair market price for licensing music that a download store or subscription service must pay," RIAA Chief Mitch Bainwol told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Bainwol wants Congress to mandate an audio flag similar to the broadcast flag rules issued in 2003 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The technology prevents downloaders from making a copy of a digital copy.

The courts lowered the broadcast flag last year, not because of the technology but because of issues related to the FCC's authority in the matter. Congress is now considering giving the FCC the specific authority to mandate a broadcast flag and the RIAA wants lawmakers to throw in audio flags while they're at it.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) is circulating draft legislation to reinstate the broadcast flag and to create a federal advisory committee charged with developing an audio flag.

"The recent growth in digital programming has been fueled in part by the availability of secure distribution media, including DVDs, CDs, computer applications like iTunes and cable and satellite television," Smith said. "These media share one important attribute - technological measures to protect against piracy."

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), while wholeheartedly supporting the broadcast flag, is opposed to an audio flag.

"As a starting point, we should note that peer-to-peer file sharing and unauthorized distribution of music over the Internet, all present a larger and more immediate threat to copyright holders than does HD radio," Dan Halyburton, an official for Susquehanna Radio and speaking on behalf of the NAB, told lawmakers.

Halyburton added, "Accordingly, we are simply not a good source for music piracy."

The NAB says there are currently 624 AM and FM digital radio stations on the air, more than the triple the amount from a year ago. More than 2,000 radio broadcasters are committed to upgrading to digital.

"No proposal should be allowed to derail the HD radio rollout, by making obsolete thousands of receivers already on the market, as well as millions more in the manufacturing pipeline," Halyburton said.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) also expressed reservations over an audio flag.

"Instead of merely replicating the broadcast flag, [the] RIAA apparently wants to severely limit consumer use of HD radio and satellite radio services and new products coming to market," said CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro.

Shapiro said the proposed audio flag would also serve as a curb on fair use rights, testifying that, "They [RIAA] appear to want to stop Americans from recording free over-the-air radio in their private homes for later enjoyment."

Under Smith's draft legislation, Shapiro said, the FCC would be in the position to unilaterally mandate anti-copying technology that every digital device must use. That, he said, would give the FCC design authority over consumer electronic products.

The RIAA's Bainwol said the issue is all about keeping the legal download business perking.

"We have no issue with the convergence of radio and downloads, as long as they are licensed for that purpose," he said.

However, he noted, the RIAA objects to a radio service using free spectrum to change the very nature of its business to compete "unfairly against download and on-demand subscription services that need to obtain an appropriate license."