FCC Ponders Giving Broadcasters ATSC 3.0 Carriage Flexibility

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has sent deadlines of Feb. 20 for comments and Mar. 20 for replies on several questions it raised as part of its decision to approve a framework for rolling out the ATSC 3.0 next-generation broadcast TV standard.

Among the issues at stake are whether a station can get out from under the simulcasting mandate for the new transmissions, and how stations will be carried by cable operators.

The new standard will allow broadcasters to deliver 4K pictures and enhanced audio, as well as interactive features (it is an IP-based standard), enhanced emergency alerts and more. The FCC is requiring TV stations that voluntarily roll out the new standard to also simulcast in their current format (for five years), given that the new standard is not backward compatible and requires either new TV sets or adapters.

Also at issue is how flexible the FCC will be with broadcasters who want to get out from under the mandate via waivers, including whether they will have to provide such adaptors for free or at reduced rates.

Some stations, such as noncoms, may not be able to find partners in a market to share the ATSC 3.0 rollout load. Broadcasters will have to team up for ATSC 3.0, with one station airing both ATSC 3.0 signals and the other airing the current 1.0 signals for both stations.

The National Association of Broadcasters says the new standard will remake broadcast TV and help it better compete with over-the-top video services and multichannel video programming distributors.

In a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking accompanying the ATSC 3.0 framework order, the FCC sought input on exceptions and waivers to its local simulcast requirement, including whether broadcasters should be able to use vacant TV channels to help the transition to ATSC 3.0, and its tentative conclusion that local simulcasts won’t change the “significantly viewed” status of local TV stations.

Significantly viewed status allows a satellite carrier to deliver a signal outside its market, or for cable operators to import it at the lower, in-market rate.

A politically divided FCC voted 3-2 on Nov. 16 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, among other things, a gift to Sinclair Broadcast Group or a rush to a standard that could leave viewers paying for the change through new TVs or equipment with higher cable prices.

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.