FCC’s Pai Eyes Broadcasting’s Future

Agency’s new era begins with jump-start on next-gen transmission standard

Broadcasters tried to get FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to act on their pleas for permission to roll out ATSC 3.0 for more than nine months. It took new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai less than two weeks to deliver—or at least jump-start via a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM—the interactive, mobile, next-generation TV standard.

Pai last week signaled the commission would be voting at its Feb. 23 meeting on a proposal to allow broadcasters to voluntarily deploy ATSC 3.0 while requiring it to simulcast, by itself, or with the help of a station partners, the current ATSC 1.0. ATSC 3.0 is not compatible with current sets.

Pai is not proposing to require consumer electronics companies to build in a tuner, or at least not yet. And he is not proposing to force MVPDs to carry the new signals in addition to the old.

He is proposing that broadcasters’ public interest responsibilities will extend to the new signals. The item seeks input on how broadcasters should have to educate viewers, issues related to retrans and the voluntary ATSC 3.0 carriage, and “how to ensure that deployment of Next Gen TV-based transmissions will not negatively impact the post-incentive auction transition process.”

Reaction was swift and effusive from the broadcast community.

In a statement, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton praised the move, which he said “will foster technological innovation, increase opportunities for minority and female owners, and create new and unique services for consumers.” In acting quickly and transparently, he added, Pai’s push “will provide greater clarity for stakeholders and greater trust from the public in dealing with the FCC going forward.”

Jerald Fritz, executive VP of One Media, the Sinclair Broadcast Group-backed think tank advocating for the standard, said the benefits for both viewers and broadcasters “are as profound as any developed in the past 90 years. The timing to implement the new standard in conjunction with the repack is a practical and strategic imperative.”

Added Rebecca Hanson, senior VP for strategy and policy at Sinclair, “The efficiencies of one-to-many datacasting will not only be disruptive on the consumer front, but will also bring public safety communications into the 21st century.”

The NPRM came in response to the petition filed last April by the NAB, as well as the Consumer Technology Association, America’s Public Television Stations and the Advanced Warning and Response Network Alliance. It also incorporates stakeholder input on that petition.

For example, the request that the FCC allow a simulcasting partnership in which two stations in a market could take a Jack Spratt approach, with one station delivering the ATSC 1.0 versions for both of their primary signals and the other delivering the ATSC 3.0 versions.

The chairman says he wants the ATSC 3.0 authorization approved by the end of 2017.