Channel Battle Rages in ATSC Rollout

March 5 marked the official start of the ATSC 3.0 voluntary rollout, but it was just the latest marker in the battle among broadcasters, cable operators and computer companies over how the new advanced broadcast transmission standard should be allowed to unfold.

Broadcasters, both commercial and noncommercial, got pretty much what they wanted out of the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to allow them to start broadcasting in ATSC 3.0, as long as they still send out a signal in the current 1.0 standard, which is not backwards compatible and, therefore, requires a new TV set or dongle adapter.

There is no planned subsidy for making sets compatible since, unlike the 2009 DTV transition, the government is not mandating this transmission upgrade.

But hardly had the Advanced Television Systems Committee (the “ATSC” in ATSC) celebrated the date in a blog post when the American Television Alliance (ATVA) petitioned the FCC for a redress of grievances (see box), as did NCTA–The Internet & Television Association.

Broadcasters, when asking the FCC for permission to roll out the standard, signaled that they would not need any extra spectrum, but they have also said they wouldn’t mind some. Specifically, they don’t want the FCC to foreclose the possibility of using more spectrum for ATSC 3.0 by granting computer companies a channel in every market for unlicensed use.

That is the major issue between broadcasters and computer companies — in particular, Microsoft.

There are several bones to pick between broadcasting and cable. Primary among those is the first bullet point in ATVA’s petition and joint retransmission-consent negotiations that can tie carriage of the new ATSC 3.0 signals to those of the anchor ATSC 1.0 signals.

NCTA is worried that combining that with a vague simulcast requirement with some wiggle room might force cable operators to carry the ATSC 3.0 signal to get some must-have programming.

In a petition asking the FCC to reconsider a recent decision allowing broadcasters to bundle their old and new signal into re-trans deals, NCTA argued that the move “shifts the costs and burdens of this new standard onto cable operators and the viewing public.” The FCC has also said it would entertain waivers of the simulcast requirement for full-power stations on a case-by-case basis. Broadcasters are all for that flexibility.

This Is Only a Test

NCTA said the FCC should scrap the waiver policy as premature, given that the voluntary rollout may not take with viewers, it suggests, and is at this stage only a test.

Noncommercial stations, meanwhile, have asked the FCC to give them a blanket waiver from the simulcast requirement. Given their noncommercial mission, they said, there is no reason for them not to serve the public.

NCTA isn’t buying it.

“Cable operators carry public television stations throughout the country,” the trade group said, adding that permitting public stations to opt to turn off their viewable over-the-air ATSC 1.0 signal would inevitably cause significant disruption.

Cable operators are siding with the computer companies, given that WiFi depends on unlicensed spectrum. NCTA told the FCC that letting broadcasters use more spectrum temporarily as they transition to ATSC 3.0 — if they do — would be “at odds with the point of the spectrum auction and repacking, which was to recapture spectrum from the broadcast band for alternative wireless uses.”

But the 800-pound cybergorilla in that fight is Microsoft, which has been pushing hard for an unlicensed channel in every U.S. market. It told the commission that letting broadcasters use extra spectrum during the repack — thus reducing what is available for unlicensed channels — would undermine rural broadband, delay the transition to new channels and, echoing NCTA, shift broadcasters’ costs onto others.

If broadcasters want more spectrum, Microsoft said, they should bid for it at auction.

Not surprisingly, the National Association of Broadcasters sees it quite differently.

“The commission should encourage the use of unoccupied broadcast television channels to minimize consumer disruption during Next Gen deployment,” the NAB told the FCC. As for Microsoft’s channel-for-unlicensed pitch, the NAB said, “Under no circumstances should the commission limit broadcasters’ access to television channels to expand mythical unlicensed use (i.e., TV white spaces), which has proven to be a massive flop over the last decade.”

The key in this evolution will be which way an FCC majority — keen on closing the rural broadband divide but also on fostering a competitive broadcast service — will come down.


Last week The American Television Alliance (the American Cable Association, Dish Network and DirecTV are all members) asked the FCC to reconsider its following decisions in allowing the rollout of the ATSC 3.0 advanced broadcast transmission system:

● The decision not to require separate negotiations for first-time multichannel video programming distributor carriage of ATSC 3.0 signals.
● The decision to permit low power and translator stations to flash-cut to ATSC 3.0.
● The decision to permit broadcasters to degrade their signals without warning viewers and MVPDs beforehand.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.