What will happen to AM and FM broadcasts in the future? It’s a tech question that needs to be answered.
AM radio has been around since the beginning of broadcasting. FM was invented in the 1930s and surpassed AM as the band of choice in the 1980s. Both bands have had an excellent run. But how much longer will we be using them?
I am NOT talking about the death of terrestrial radio. It will survive just fine. But the distribution channels will change.
Here in North America, we have AM, FM, satellite radio, streaming, and HD-Radio. Let’s go through them.
- AM faces the biggest challenge, not only because of its inferior audio quality but because signals cannot penetrate the electromagnetic fields generated by electric vehicles. If you can’t be heard in the car, you’re dead. A new survey says that 73% of people listen to radio in the car. Some AM stations are moving to FM, but government regulations and dearth of open spots on the dial are big roadblocks.
- FM continues to do well despite pressure from other audio options like smartphones and streaming. Its biggest disadvantage is that it’s not interactive, something that younger generations demand.
- Satellite radio serves a listening niche, although there’s just one provider in North America. While it offers a huge variety of programming, it’s not free. That’s a big barrier to a lot of people.
- Online audio streaming of radio continues to grow. That same survey says that 70% of Americans stream AM/FM radio and audio content weekly.
- HD Radio (the brand name of In-Band On-Channel or iBOC) is based on tech developed in the 1990s. It has never taken off in a big way even though many, many markets have stations that broadcast in HD Radio. And if your car is less than seven years old, chances are it can receive HD Radio broadcasts, although most infotainment systems don’t make it easy.
Nothing stands still, how will radio be distributed in the future?
Things are evolving in other parts of the world. Norway, Switzerland, and a few other countries are in the process of shutting down the legacy bands (i.e. AM and FM) in favour of digital radio (DAB). That’s never going to happen here.
We in North America had a chance to get on board with DAB more than 20 years ago, but the US kiboshed the whole thing for a couple of reasons. First, the broadcast frequencies required by DAB were apparently too close to those used by the US military. Second, the US is just too big and no one wanted to spend the necessary money to build transmitters and repeaters. HD Radio was seen as a compromise, but no one seems to care.
And third, Canada actually adopted DAB more than two decades ago but ran into technical issues. At the time, though, VHF frequencies were being used for over-the-air analogue TV (not a problem anymore). The other issue was that because DAB used microwave frequencies around 1200 MHz, lots and lots of transmitters would be required to have extensive and smooth signals. Like the US, we’re just too big (although Australia and Russia seem to be interested in solving this problem.)
Okay, so where do we go from here? There are big predictions about the connectivity possible with 5G and 6G networks. That, however, requires a LOT of technical infrastructure upgrades. It’ll also take a long time for the majority of the population to transition from whatever type of network they’re using now. This will also require changes to infotainment systems in cars, something that won’t happen quickly.
Broadcasters will have to figure out how to adapt, too, but are very, very wary of moving too quickly in this direction. We in radio remember the early 2000s when we went all-in with online offerings. But by the time we were able to roll out the new platforms, the tech had moved on and we were stuck with an outdated and buggy online presence. Radio now tends to use off-the-shelf products (e.g. building websites on WordPress platforms instead of creating something from scratch). At this point, there are no off-the-shelf solutions for 5G and 6G connectivity.
We will move on eventually. But what will happen to that spectrum now occupied by AM and FM? Will they be repurposed? Unknown.
Old-school VHF radios once used by taxis and other fleet vehicles have pretty much disappeared in favour of apps on a smartphone. Is that the direction of AM and FM? Possibly. Will these frequencies eventually empty out? Could they be used for low-power very specialized micro-broadcasting? Maybe.
To be clear, “radio” is not going away. It will be with us forever. It just needs to be redefined away from sounds that come out of box that you tune to a specific frequency. “Radio” will become something that can be enjoyed digitally both in real time and on-demand. How we receive those broadcasts is still very much TBA.
To get a little more into the weeds, go here.