FCC's Pai Moves to Jump-Start ATSC 3.0 Rollout

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai signaled Thursday (Feb. 2) that he wants broadcasters to be able to start working on tomorrow's TV today.

Pai, who has only been in the job since Jan. 20, wasted no time prioritizing that goal. He has already circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to the other commissioners that would allow TV stations to start rolling out the ATSC 3.0 advanced TV transmission standard on a voluntary basis. He hopes to issue final authorization for the new standard by the end of the year, he said in an op-ed explaining the importance of the initiative.

Related: CES 2017: Why Sinclair Has the Hots for ATSC 3.0

"Next Gen TV matters because it will let broadcasters offer much better services in a variety of ways," Pai wrote. "Picture quality will improve with 4K transmissions. Accurate sound localization and customizable sound mixes will produce an immersive audio experience. Broadcasters will be able to provide advanced emergency alerts with more information, more tailored to a viewer’s particular location. Enhanced personalization and interactivity will enable better audience measurement, which in turn will make for higher-quality advertising–ads relevant to you and that you actually might want to see. Perhaps most significantly, consumers will easily be able to watch over-the-air programming on mobile devices."

Related: Pay TV Ops Take Aim at ATSC 3.0

The NPRM is responsive to the petition filed last April by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Consumer Technology Association (CTA), America's Public Television Stations (APTS) and the Advanced Warning and Response Network (AWARN) Alliance, but also incorporates stakeholder input on that petition, according to an FCC official speaking on background.

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

The NPRM authorizes the voluntary use of ATSC 3.0 while requiring stations to continue to deliver an ATSC 1.0 version of their signals. It also proposes to require simulcasting in ATSC 1.0, the official said. It also proposes to require MVPDs continue to carry the ATSC 1.0, but does not require them to carry ATSC 3.0 during the transition to a new standard. It asks questions about how the retrans consent regime might look and about interference protections.

Broadcasters promised to simulcast their signals during such rollouts given that the standard is not compatible with current TV sets.

Related: NAB Fires Back at ATVA on ATSC 3.0

The NPRM takes the petition's comments into account. For example, the request that the FCC allow a simulcasting partnership in which two stations in a market could take a Jack Spratt approach, with one station delivering the ATSC 1.0 versions for both of their primary their signals, and the other delivering the ATSC 3.0 versions.

At the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee meeting Jan. 27, Patrick McFadden, NAB associate general counsel, briefed the members on broadcasters' ATSC 3.0 asks, or in this case "not asks." "We're not asking for federal subsidies. We're not asking for any money from the federal government. We're not asking the federal government to underwrite a federal converter box program. We're not asking for more spectrum."

Pai is no Ajit-come-lately to the ATSC 3.0 effort.

He called for action in testimony for a Senate oversight hearing last September, saying: "I believe that it is important for the Commission to act with dispatch. Just as the United States is leading the way on 5G in the mobile space, so too should we be at the forefront of innovation in the broadcast space."

Broadcasters had initially wanted an FCC decision on ATSC 3.0 by October, then the end of the year when that didn't happen -- former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler declined to set a timetable for action. They have since called for final rules on the launch by the end of 2017.

Given that the post-auction repack timetable is more it to last more than three years and it won't be triggered until sometime this year, That would allow the rollout and the repack to dovetail if Pai's end-of-year authorization is achieved.

The FCC did not take ATSC 3.0 into account when planning the repack, but outgoing Media Bureau chief Bill Lake has suggested that the two could, indeed, dovetail.

Over-the-Air broadcasting is growing thanks to cord-cutters, the NAB said, and is well-positioned to compete against a host of rivals, but to assume that position it will need ATSC 3.0.

Broadcasters have told the FCC they are hamstrung by the lack of permission-less innovation accorded the competition. For example, the NAB pointed out that Netflix was ramping up 4K content, much of it live. Broadcasters need “a path to that future” if they are to remain viable, the NAB insists. Without it, they say, there will be a 4K divide between those who can afford to pay for hi-def video and those who can’t.

Not if Chairman Pai can help it.

"We expect and want the United States to lead the world in technological innovation. Moving forward with Next Gen TV would enable us to do just that," Pai said.

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.