FCC's O'Rielly on ATSC 3.0: It's (Appropriately) Complicated

Cautions against muddying waters with patent debates
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FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly says that while the technical elements of the new ATSC 3.0 advanced broadcast transmission standard may be difficult to explain, the benefits aren't: Better definition, better sound quality, better emergency information, and interactive features, all of which he said would be welcome options.

Broadcasters have petitioned the FCC to allow them to start testing/rolling out the new standard on a market-by-market basis while continuing to deliver their traditional fare in the current standard—ATSC 3.0 is not compatible with current TV sets.

The next-gen system would allow for interactivity, ultra high-definition, the advanced emergency alerts, more channels in the same bandwidth, mobile broadcast TV, and datacasting, all ways for broadcasters to remain competitive in a multi-platform world.

O'Rielly, in a speech to a meeting of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (the "ATSC" in ATSC 3.0) in Washington this week.

He said the FCC should help the rollout by taking a flexible approach that allows broadcasters to experiment, which means no tech mandates or "overly prescriptive" measures. He said that should, ideally, mean fewer regulatory hoops for broadcasters to have to jump through on the way to their ATSC 3.0 (or 4.0) future.

Minimizing consumer disruption should also be a guiding principle, he said, clearly a challenge given that the standard is not backward compatible with the current sets.

He pointed out there had been some criticism that some of the decisions in the new standard were driven not by technological advancement but who held which patent. He warned against "potentially muddying the waters over the eventual quality of 3.0 with debate over suboptimal sub-standards adopted to appease particular patent or license holders."

O'Rielly did not commit himself on the issue of whether either the spectrum auction, scheduled to begin May 31, or the post-auction TV station repack should be delayed to align it with a 3.0 rollout but pointed out that the chairman has repeatedly rejected the idea of delaying it. As to the repack, he seemed to leave a little more room. "[T]he auction process is just being started, and a lot of things need to happen before it will be time to set some concrete repacking plans...In the months to come, we should all have a much better idea of what will happen and what considerations broadcasters, and the Commission, may need to take into account and act upon."

The FCC has already put broadcasters ATSC 3.0 petition out for comments, which are due June 27.