FCC Approves Latest Spur to Broadcast Internet

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (Image credit: FCC)

The FCC has voted on a Report and Order (a final action) to further advance the ATSC 3.0 broadcast transmission standard that broadcasters have branded NextGen TV and which they said they need to be competitive in the new media marketplace.

The vote was unanimous, though with concurrences by the Democratic commissioners, which is short of an enthusiastic "yes."

The FCC's Media Bureau, which presented the item, said it would help provide regulatory certainty for broadcasters.

Also Read: Campaign Looks to Juice NextGen TV Set Sales

The vote at the FCC's Dec. 10 public meeting was unanimous and followed last June's vote to encourage the provision of what the FCC is calling broadcast internet services. That "encouragement" included making it clear that legacy broadcast TV attribution and ownership regulations do not apply to broadcast-delivered internet services like over-the-top video and data.

Thursday's vote was another victory for broadcasters because it does not mandate an "HD before ancillary" regime or raise the fees on those ancillary broadcast services, at least for now--the FCC made clear it would reconsider that down the line.

The FCC is statutorily required to collect fees for ancillary and supplementary services generating revenue from other than primary channels.

MVPDs had called on the FCC to mandate that broadcasters deliver a high definition version of their primary channel before using spectrum for those ancillary services and wanted the FCC to boost the fees broadcasters already pay for using extra digital spectrum for other services.

Many cable and satellite operators had wanted the FCC to include in the ancillary fee calculation "the value of the spectrum, the amount the spectrum would have generated via an auction, and the need to avoid unjust enrichment."

Also Read: NAB Tells FCC to Reject Broadcast Internet Regulations

The FCC voted to:

  • Calculate ancillary and supplementary service fees based on the gross revenue received by the broadcaster rather than revenue received by a spectrum lessee, except to the extent the broadcaster has a stake in the lessee itself;
  • Exclude from gross revenue the value of “in-kind” facility improvements made or financed by third parties in order to transition a station to, or help a station fully utilize the benefits of, ATSC 3.0; and
  • Retain the existing standard for derogation of broadcast service [broadcasters must still provide its primary service] but amend the rule to eliminate an outdated reference to analog television.
  • Decline to adjust the 5% ancillary and supplementary service fee for commercial stations at this time.
  • Recognize the unique public service mission of noncommercial educational (NCE) television stations by adopting a number of additional proposals designed to preserve and expand this essential mission through the provision of Broadcast Internet services:
  • Permit an NCE to use its spectrum primarily not only for free, over-the-air nonprofit, noncommercial, educational, television broadcasting, but also for nonprofit, noncommercial, educational (“primary”) ancillary and supplementary services; and
  • Adopt a reduced fee of 2.5% for NCEs on gross revenue generated by such “primary” ancillary and supplementary services.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel chose to concur rather than provide her full-throated 'yes." She supports the new tech, but is concerned about getting it to over-the-air viewers who will have to get new technology to receive it since the standard is not backward compatible and viewers will need either new sets or adaptors.

"[A] new broadcast standard is coming to enhance our viewing. ATSC 3.0 promises to deliver Ultra High Definition picture quality and immersive audio, along with advanced emergency alerts and new interactive services," she said. "This is good stuff. It could mean real innovation in broadcasting—on par with new services that have emerged on so many of the other screens around us."

"But as we usher in this new standard for television, we need to keep consumers front of mind," she said. "That means in addition to updating our rules for broadcasters adopting this technology, we consider how everyone who watches will navigate this transition. After all, ATSC 3.0 is not compatible with current television devices. That means each of us will need to buy new television sets or new equipment. And just saddling consumers with this expense doesn’t add up.

That is in contrast to the DTV transition, which required new TV's or adaptors, the latter which the government allocated money to pay for.

"There comes a point—and I think we’re getting there fast—where we can no longer afford to ignore this issue," she said. "We need to do more to figure out how we can help viewers reach this next generation of television technology."

FCC chairman Ajit Pai pointed to the acceleration of the ATSC 3.0 rollout. He signaled he thought the future for that technology was bright and that he was particularly enthusiastic about noncommercial stations' use of the technology for educational broadcasts and remote learning. He thanked noncoms for their strong support for the item, and for commissioner Brendan Carr for his work on the item. 

"NAB appreciates the Commission's attention to the development of ATSC 3.0 and all of the consumer benefits that will follow," said NAB SVP Ann Marie Cumming. "In particular, NAB thanks all of the Commissioners for working collaboratively with stakeholders to yield a positive item for the future of ATSC 3.0."

“We are extraordinarily grateful to Chairman Pai for championing Broadcast Internet, and for his recognition of public television datacasting as a versatile solution to remote learning, public safety communications, telehealth, and other essential services that America’s public television stations are prepared to provide," said America's Public Television Stations in a statement. "[T]he unanimous support of other Commission members bodes well for a consistent policy of encouragement for this technology in the critical months and years just ahead.”

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.