Broadcasters push for FCC to rally around ATSC 3.0

Broadcasters have renewed their push for a broader support of the next-generation broadcast standard ATSC 3.0, with one of their biggest industry groups asking the FCC to form a task force focused on transitioning TV viewers to the new standard as quickly as possible.

Last week, the National Association of Broadcasters filed an ex-parte notice with the Federal Communications Commission asserting the future of the open airwaves is rooted in ATSC 3.0 — also known by the consumer brand NextGen TV — and complaining that a mandate to simulcast newer-generation signals with the old, ATSC 1.0 standard was "wasteful."

Currently, there is no mandate from the federal government that would require broadcasters to move from the ATSC 1.0 standard to NextGen TV, similar to the transition that occurred more than a decade ago from analog to digital television. Instead, broadcasters in about five dozen TV markets have launched one or more ATSC 3.0 stations while simultaneously keeping their ATSC 1.0 signals on the air.

Around 60% of Americans live in an area where ATSC 3.0 signals are being transmitted. But most do not have the correct tuners or equipment needed to receive them. The NAB attributes this to a lack of support on the FCC's end, as well as an apparent unwillingness from some electronics makers to support the new standard.

To remedy this, the NAB urged individual commissioners to vocalize their support for NextGen TV, the way they have for 5G and Wi-Fi technologies in the past. Additionally, the NAB wants the FCC to form a task force that balances consumer expectations with the needs and wants of broadcasters.

"A task force would put greater focus on the important issues and could draw on expertise from multiple offices and bureaus to attack problems as they arise," the NAB wrote in its letter. "A task force would [also] enable the Commission to more effectively and efficiently focus on our shared concerns about viewers losing access to television signals, among other things."

While the NAB affirmed that it wanted viewers to receive free over-the-air signals before, during and after the NextGen TV transition, it stopped short of saying this should be a concern of whatever task force the FCC forms. Instead, it said the task force should focus on "our shared concerns about viewers losing access to television signals," but didn't say those signals would remain free forever.

Broadcasters have a number of reasons for wanting the transition to ATSC 3.0 to happen as quickly as possible: The technology not only allows broadcasters to eventually encrypt their signals, it also combines over-the-air feeds with Internet-driven data. That allows broadcasters to target things like emergency notification messages and advertisements based on a user's location, among other things. Broadcasters can also take advantage of new video and audio standards, including ultra-high definition (UHD/4K) video resolution, high dynamic range (HDR) and multichannel audio, far beyond what is possible with the current ATSC 1.0 standard.

Speaking at the Parks Associates Future of Video forum last week, Sinclair Broadcast Group's Chief Innovation Officer Scott Ehrlich said NextGen TV will bring parity between broadcast outlets and streaming platforms, which are already using technology like targeted ads and higher-quality video feeds.

"Anything, theoretically, we can do on [over-the-top platforms] and connected TV, we can do over-the-air," Ehrlich affirmed, noting that broadcasters might eventually offer pop-up video channels for high school sports, local news or traffic that are coupled with hyper-local messaging and targeted advertising.

"People have to decide whether these are good ideas or bad ideas, but now they're technically possible," Ehrlich said.