FCC Launches Next-Gen Broadcast TV Standard

A politically divided FCC has voted 3-2 to allow for the voluntary rollout of the ATSC 3.0 advanced transmission standard. That came over the objections of Democrats on the commission and in Congress, who argued that it was a gift to Sinclair or a rush to a standard that could leave viewers paying for the change through new TV's or equipment of higher cable prices. 

ATSC 3.0 is the new broadcast transmission standard that will allow TV stations to do video on demand and other interactive services using a broadband return path for viewers with Internet access, and provide 4K video, advanced emergency alerts and more. 

The standard is still years from a widespread rollout, but the countdown began Thursday (Nov. 16). 

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Sinclair has been a big supporter of the standard and has a handful of patents.

The FCC's won't exclude ATSC 3.0 signals from retrans negotiations, though the mandatory simulcasts of old and new transmission standards must be essentially the same, which MVPDs had pushed for.

The new standard is not backward-compatible, so it will require new sets or adaptors and broadcasters will have to simulcast in the current ATSC 1.0 standard if they choose to broadcast ATSC 3.0. They will team up with another broadcaster in the market, with one stations delivering the 1.0 signals and the other the 3.0 signals.

Broadcasters will have a chance to make a case for flash-cutting to ATSC 3.0 rather than simulcasting, and Low Power TV's will be allowed to flash cut without simulcasting. 

MVPDs must continue to carry ATSC signals but don't have to carry the new 3.0 signals. 

The item was circulated for a vote last month.

Democrats in the Senate had asked the chairman to delay the vote until after an FCC inspector general investigation into whether Pai had favored Sinclair in various decisions, a charge the chairman's spokesfolk have dismissed as last ditch political ploys. 

Rosenworcel called the item "irresponsibly imprecise and cavalier in its disregard for the expenses it imposes on consumers. I believe the next transition should leave no viewer worse off, and leave all of us better off.” She was unhappy that there was not subsidy for new equipment, as there was in the DTV transition, in addition to the potential new costs to MVPD subs if the price of ATSC 3.0 signals bundled into retrans deals is passed on to them. 

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the item could create a new kind of digital divide. 

"Next-Gen supporters tell us not to worry, viewers can continue to receive the existing 1.0 signal, and for five years after this Order appears in our Federal Register, that signal will be 'substantially similar,'" Clyburn said. "Five years after this Order appears in our Federal Register, that requirement sunsets. Translation: that mandate goes away. They no longer have to send you that signal. Now late yesterday, the Chairman’s Office revised the Order to include an exception to this requirement. Without a requirement to make programming substantially similar, broadcasters are free to create two different tiers of television. Why is that problematic? Why am I uneasy? This could actually create an unacceptable, unjustified and unwanted digital television divide for those with limited financial means." 

She said there had been no analysis of the cost to consumers versus the benefits, a reference to the chairman's frequent criticism of the previous FCC's lack of cost-benefit analysis.

Related: Shapiro: Politics Should Not Derail ATSC 3.0

Clyburn did say she appreciated the item did not create a deadline for pulling the plug on 1.0 signals, but: "This Order gets a failing grade when it comes to putting the public’s interest first.

Republican Brendan Carr recognized the political and other pushback. '[S]ome have tried to stoke fears at the last minute, suggesting that today’s Order will foist increased costs on consumers in the form of new TVs or higher cable bills," he said, but he branded those "bogeymen." The reality, he said, was: "[W]e adopt numerous measures that protect consumers and other stakeholders. And we ensure that this voluntary transition will be driven by market forces and consumer demand, not an FCC mandate."

He pointed out that the FCC did not create a tuner mandate in the item. 

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly called it a consumer-driven, flexible and market-driven approach that would let the consumer decide what ATSC.o would look like in the future. He said it was not that he didn't have any questions himself, but that it was too early to answer them. 

O'Rielly said he was pleased that the FCC had backed off a proposal that it mandate 15-second ad minimums for ATSC 3.0, pointing out the recent use of 6-second ads by one broadcaster.

He said that the rollout is voluntary for both broadcasters and consumers, dismissing the parade of horribles that have been offered up by the critics of the proposal. He said broadcasters have every incentive to keep delivering viewable signals to viewers.

Chairman Ajit Pai suggested it was a historic day for broadcasters, for public safety and, for viewers getting better pictures and more services. He also pointed out public broadcasters were big backers of the proposal. He said it could help them provide distance learning. He said it would be a voluntary, market-driven transition. He said no consumer would have to buy a new TV or dongle to get the ATSC 3.0 signal if they did not want to, meaning it was up to them since they would still have access to current signals.

Related: NAB: ATSC 3.0 Will Reinvent Free TV

He said critics wanted to strangle the tech in its cradle and were instilling false fears and trying to get regulators to stall progress. He said the FCC was rejecting the attempt to block technological progress. He said a yes vote was a vote for innovation, competition, better pictures, better sound, public safety, enhanced features, public TV and leadership. He said he was proud to vote 'yes.'

“We have advocated for a robust, broadcast-centric digital standard since 1997, and we are gratified to see that the ATSC, broadcasters and the government have now agreed to do just that,” said Sinclair President Christopher Ripley, of the vote. “True mobile TV and data distribution, compatible with the Internet, can now become a reality. The Sinclair-reimagined, ground-up standard, designed by and for broadcasters, has been enhanced and refined by the detailed contributions of hundreds of ATSC volunteer engineers resulting in a platform that will be the envy of the world. Its television and data capabilities promise spectacular benefits to consumers, broadcasters and equipment manufactures alike.”

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.