The FCC issued a 3-2 decision yesterday approving the voluntary roll-out of the next-generation ATSC 3.0 broadcast transmission standard. Built on Internet protocol, ATSC 3.0 is expected to significantly expand opportunities for broadcasters to deliver live television and other video programming to smart phones, tablet PCs and other wireless devices. The FCC also noted in a press release that ATSC 3.0 “will let broadcasters provide consumers with more vivid pictures and sound, including ultra-high definition television and superior reception” as well as capabilities for interactive educational programming and advanced emergency alerts.

Following on field tests of ATSC 3.0 technology that were conducted recently in the Cleveland market, the FCC’s order provides broadcasters with the flexibility to deploy ATSC 3.0 voluntarily alongside the existing digital ATSC 1.0 transmission standard. To ensure viewers will not be forced to purchase new equipment, any broadcaster which elects to deploy ATSC 3.0 will be required to partner with another local TV station in their market which would simulcast their programming in ATSC 1.0 format. (However, consumers who wish to view ATSC 3.0 programming will have to purchase new sets or adaptors which are equipped for the new standard.) Broadcasters will be required to provide advance on-air notifications to educate viewers about ATSC 3.0 deployment and simulcasting, and ATSC 3.0 transmissions will be subject to the same public interest obligations that apply to all television broadcasters. ATSC 3.0 signals will not be excluded from retransmission consent negotiations although simulcasts of ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 signals must be “substantially similar” to each other.

Describing the agency’s vote as “a promising day for consumers, an exciting day for technological innovation, and a historic day for the broadcast business,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proclaimed that “we open the door to a substantially improved, free, over-the-air television broadcast service, and fiercer competition in the video marketplace.” In a dissenting statement, however, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn pointed out that, because the simulcast requirement sunsets five years after the FCC’s order is published in the Federal Register, the new rules “could actually create an unacceptable, unjustified and unwanted digital television divide for those with limited financial means.” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who joined Clyburn in voting against the order, complained that the rules provide no consumer subsidies for converters or other new viewing equipment as had been the case when the FCC approved rules in the 1990s to implement the transition from analog to digital TV. 

Meanwhile, reaction to the order among broadcast industry players was generally positive. Lauding ATSC 3.0 as a “gamechanging technology for broadcasting and our viewers,” NAB President Gordon Smith told reporters that the FCC’s endorsement of ATSC 3.0 “marks the beginning of a reinvention of free and local broadcast television in America.” As CTA President Gary Shapiro proclaimed that the new ATSC 3.0 rules provide “the flexibility and future-proofing needed to deliver exciting enhanced television services . . . to fixed and mobile devices,” an official of Sinclair—a leader in the search for a mobile, next-generation broadcast standard and a holder of several ATSC 3.0-related patents—said, “we congratulate the Commission for its foresight and keen acknowledgement of the need for broadcast innovation.” Observing, however, that “the FCC choses to rely on broadcasters’ assurances that they have ‘marketplace incentives’ to protect viewers from service loss” and that “cable carriage of these new signals will be truly ‘voluntary,’” American Cable Association President Matthew Polka struck a cautious tone as he promised: “we’re going to hold broadcasters accountable, and we hope Congress and the FCC will do the same.”