On the eve of this year’s NAB Show in Las Vegas, the FCC has been asked to approve the next generation of TV transmission – ATSC 3.0. A broad coalition – broadcasters through the NAB and APTS (the public television association), technology manufacturers (through CTA – the Consumer Technology Association formerly the Consumer Electronics Association), emergency communications advocates (through the AWARN Alliance, which includes broadcasters) and ATSC (the TV technology standards association) have requested that the Commission approve this new technology for use by TV stations on a voluntary basis. The petition (available here) asks that the FCC approval be granted expeditiously, no doubt so that roll-out could be timed with the repacking of the TV band that will be required following the broadcast incentive auction that is now underway.
The requested changes to the FCC rules are minimal – asking only that TV stations be able to adopt and use the new transmission standard, that stations using the standard be treated as TV stations for must-carry purposes (and providing for prior notice to MVPDs when the conversion is about to occur on a TV station), and to provide for TV stations who decide to convert to be able to continue to broadcast in the current DTV standard. That continuation of service would be provided by allowing a station that converts to the new standard to simulcast one program stream on another TV station that is operating using the current DTV standard in the same market, as existing TV sets will not be able to decode the new transmission standard. Here are some questions that we had when reading the Petition and answers to the extent that we can discern them from the filings made so far.
What is being proposed right now? In the petition, the FCC is being asked to approve only what is called the “physical layer” of the system, i.e. the transmission system that allows content to be transmitted by the TV station. The FCC is not being asked to approve other aspects of ATSC 3.0, including the “look and feel” aspects of the new standard, such as audio capabilities and visual appearance. Some of those aspects are still being considered by ATSC and may not be finalized until later this year.
Will the system require new channels for broadcast operation? No. According to the petition, the signal will fit within the 6 MHz channel that each broadcast station is already allotted, and won’t change the interference “envelope” – meaning that it won’t interfere with other TV stations any more than does a station using the current DTV system.
What capabilities does this new system offer that are not offered through the current transmission system? The new system will allow for ultra-high definition TV, and perhaps, in the future, virtual reality programming. It will allow interactive programming, and programming that can connect with other communications channels, including those available online. Multiple channels of sound, different programming streams to different geographic parts of the station’s service area, and enhanced emergency alerts are all promised in the petition. Enhanced capabilities to transmit data streams is also set out in the petition.
How can the system offer all of these services? The petition says that the new ATSC 3.0 system will transmit using IP technology, like the Internet, and provide significantly more capacity to transmit the digital information necessary to offer all of these services to the public than the current system.
Will I be able to receive all these services over-the-air on my current TV? No, the system is not “backwards compatible” – meaning that the TV sets currently in use will not be able translate the broadcast data into a usable format.
Does that mean that I will not be able to see my favorite programs if the station on which they are shown converts to the new ATSC 3.0 system? The petition says that in most cases you will be able to see at least the main video channel on a TV set using the current standard, as the proposal would require ATSC 3.0 stations to make deals to simulcast their programming on other stations in their markets that have not transitioned to the new system. This will allow viewers who do not yet have new TVs to watch their favorite programs on their existing sets.
Will “host” stations that transmit the programming of ATSC 3.0 stations in the market be paid for transmitting these simulcasts? According to the petition, the decision to transmit the simulcast programming of the station that has transitioned to the new standard will be a voluntary one, reached through marketplace negotiations. Just as the host station would need to rebroadcast the ATSC 3.0 station’s programming using the current DTV standard, it is contemplated that as part of the simulcast agreement, thehost station’s programming would be rebroadcast by the ATSC 3.0 station. While not specifically spelled out in the petition, it appears that host stations that continue to operate in the current DTV standard may also receive other consideration for carrying the simulcast programs. The only FCC involvement will be that the simulcast agreements will need to be filed at the FCC.
Will this system allow for better mobile reception? Yes, in fact that is reportedly one of the important benefits of the new system, being able to reach mobile viewers on smartphones, tablets and other mobile delivery devices (in the not too distant future, if driverless cars become the norm, perhaps the car may be an important location for watching video as they drive on congested metropolitan streets). The ATSC 3.0 system proposes two different transmission protocols in a single system, one optimized for mobile viewing. However, just as with FM chips in cellphones, the TV industry will need the cooperation of the cellphone industry to have ATSC 3.0-compatible receivers installed and operational in mobile devices.
What about cable and satellite viewing? The petition suggests that the must-carry requirements would carry over to the new system, with MVPDs either picking up the residual simulcast channels or fiber feeds that the stations may arrange.
How long will some stations remain in operation in the old format? That is unclear from the petition, but will presumably be decided by marketplace conditions, not an ordered FCC conversion date as was the case for the current system.
What about LPTV stations? These stations were not specifically addressed in the petition.
Other questions will no doubt arise as the Commission reviews the petition. As the petition requests a change in a few FCC rules, before it can become a reality, the FCC will need to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking formally laying out the proposal and asking for public comment. The mere filing of the Petition may also result in the FCC releasing a public notice of the submission, and seeking initial comments on the filing before any further review is taken. Given the importance of this proceeding and the wide industry support for moving forward, it may well be that the Commission will start the process on these proposals quickly, and perhaps we will hear more about the FCC’s plans at the NAB Show this week.
While TV’s digital conversion a decade ago was not a rapid one, this one does not involve government oversight to the degree it was required the last time around. There is proposed to be no mandated conversion date. There is no second channel set aside for each station to allow for simultaneous operation of two stations. And there is no government fund to assist consumers in making the transition to the new system. This is proposed to be a market-driven conversion process that will succeed or fail based on consumer acceptance. This is the first step in what will no doubt be a long process. How soon that process is initiated is, at least in the first instance, now up to the FCC.