ATSC 3.0 Issues Light Up FCC

New standard’s rollout is about a lot more than tech

Why This Matters

The FCC will need to clear up policy issues on its way to approving next-gen broadcast transmission technology.

Broadcasters, of course, want the rollout of the next generation ATSC 3.0 transition standard to go smoothly. But not surprisingly with something this big, there are a number of potential policy bumps along the road — if the comments from broadcasters, cable operators and technology companies on the FCC proposal are any indication.

Commercial and noncommercial broadcasters, joined by those tech companies, asked the FCC to clear a path toward an interactive, internet protocol-based digital future by allowing TV stations to start using the new ATSC 3.0 transmission standard ASAP, with the promise that they would continue to take care of viewers given that the new standard is incompatible with current sets.

The FCC has been collecting comments, and while it hardly rivals the network-neutrality docket — 2.1 million and counting — there is a lot more to the issue than simply switching to a new standard.

One of the hottest buttons is how the FCC will handle the simulcasts that broadcasters have promised to deliver to make sure viewers can still see a signal. There is no proposal for a mandated, government-funded converter box, as in the 2009 switch from analog to digital TV, which was also incompatible with many existing sets.

Not as Easy as 1 to 3

There is some disagreement even among broadcasters about how the FCC should approach simulcasting. In their petition to roll out ATSC 3.0, broadcasters said they planned to simulcast in ATSC 1.0 during the transition to ensure viewers won’t lose access to a signal.

Many broadcasters say the FCC should not make that a requirement, arguing that their obvious interest in making sure viewers can see their content — including those ads that pay the freight for free TV — is sufficient motivation, while leaving the maximum flexibility for broadcasters to tailor their rollouts. “If the commission adopts the proposed simulcast mandate, it would unnecessarily constrain the ability of stations to best serve local community needs and respond to their markets,” Tegna said in its comment.

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But Nexstar Media Group told the FCC it agreed that simulcasting should be mandated. “Because the transition will be voluntary and will occur across different markets at different times and speed, Nexstar agrees that broadcasters implementing Next Generation Television should be required to maintain and continue to broadcast at least one ATSC 1.0 programming stream so that viewers can remain connected to their local television stations.” It agreed that broadcasters will be motivated to make sure their viewers can still get a signal, but said a simulcast mandate should be acceptable to broadcasters, and was to Nexstar.

Sounding a lot like their commercial counterparts, noncommercial TV stations also said the FCC should not mandate that they deliver both current ATSC 1.0 and the next-gen ATSC 3.0. PBS, CPB and America’s Public Television Stations have said they understand the FCC’s concern, share it and that noncoms don’t need a mandate to ensure their viewers are served, which is the core of their mission.

In fact, noncoms and the National Association of Broadcasters filed joint comments also saying the FCC should not require the ATSC 3.0 simulcast be identical to the primary stream — or subject the simulcast to any programming requirements — suggesting such a mandate would be a “slippery slope” on the road to content regulation. The better approach, they suggested, is to only require that the broadcaster provide one free, over-the-air ATSC 3.0 programming stream.

There are other issues that need to be resolved before the FCC lets broadcasters start the engines on their new transmission vehicle.

No Handout, But …

Both in their comments and in a congressional hearing, broadcasters have said they are not looking for a government handout, just a hand. “The commission does not need to allocate funds or spectrum,” Tegna told the FCC. “The National Association of Broadcasters want to leverage the fact that they are not asking for that handout,” suggesting that the other side of “no subsidies” is “no mandates.”

While broadcasters did not ask the FCC to give it extra spectrum for the ATSC 3.0 simulcast, they did signal in their comments that wouldn’t be a bad thing, at least as a stop gap. “Allowing broadcasters to use vacant in-band channels, subject to FCC approval and for the duration of the transition, could further help reduce viewer disruption,” both commercial and noncommercial broadcasters told the FCC.

Not so fast, said tech giant Microsoft, which has been a big backer of using much of the broadcast spectrum for WiFi broadband access. “There is no need to expand the amount of spectrum broadcasters may occupy in order to achieve a successful transition to ATSC 3.0,” it said in a filing. “Whatever the other benefits of the transition, therefore, there would evidently be virtually no benefit at all to allowing broadcasters to occupy vacant channels with ATSC 1.0 simulcast signals.”

Battle Over Carriage

Broadcasters and cable operators are surprisingly not divided over retransmission-consent issues related to the ATSC 3.0 transition, as they are on other fronts of that carriage battle.

Cable operators want the FCC to prevent broadcasters from bundling ATSC 3.0 carriage into retrans deals, suggesting that would make cable’s voluntary carriage of ATSC 3.0 signals less voluntary from a practical standpoint, given the need to strike deals for 1.0 signals.

NCTA–The Internet & Television Association, the cable-industry lobby group, said the FCC must “ensure that broadcasters do not use must-carry elections or retransmission consent negotiations to shift the significant costs and burdens of the ATSC 1.0 simulcast stream and ATSC 3.0 launch onto cable operators and their customers.”

Broadcasters counter that the FCC should, as it were, let the marketplace decide.

“The FCC should not place a regulatory thumb on the scale of these private negotiations in advance of any actual marketplace developments by adopting rules that shield [multichannel video programming distributors] from the market,” countered the NAB, tech companies and noncoms.