The New Future of OTA TV?

Harry Cole is a communications attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth and a Radio World columnist. This commentary also appears on the company’s blog.

The broadcast television industry is resilient. Its core over-the-air technology was fundamentally changed with the transition from analog to digital transmission in 2009 and its spectrum habitat is about to shrink dramatically thanks to the Incentive Spectrum Auction. And despite, or perhaps because of, the obvious threats posed by the demands of others seeking increasing amounts of spectrum, TV broadcasters – along with (among others) the Consumer Technology Association (CTA, formerly the Consumer Electronics Association) – have come up with a proposal to re-vamp, again, their basic transmission standard in ways that promise considerable advantages to broadcasters and, more importantly, their audiences.

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Beyond the purely technical aspects of the new standard, its resourceful proponents have come up with a couple of potentially persuasive selling points with which to convince the FCC to get behind – or at least not get in the way of – that standard, selling points that may already be working: Less than two weeks after the proposal walked in the doors at the Portals, the Media Bureau had already begun soliciting comments on it.

The new transmission standard, familiarly dubbed “ATSC 3.0” or “Next Generation TV” (and less familiarly known to the true cognoscenti as “ATSC Standard: A/321, System Discovery and Signaling”), is the brainchild of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). ATSC is composed of representatives of the broadcast, broadcast equipment, motion picture, consumer electronics, computer, cable, satellite and semiconductor industries. These are the same folks who developed the standards for DTV that have been in use nationwide since the DTV transition.

You can read the nitty-gritty technical details of how ATSC works in the 27-page ATSC document laying it all out; that document is included as Attachment A to the joint proposal submitted to the FCC. (The proponents are the NAB, the CTA, America’s Public Television Stations and the AWARN Alliance.) Hint: the standard involves use of (1) Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, described as “an efficient, flexible, and robust scheme”, and (2) Layered Division Multiplexing that “combines two data streams at different power levels with independent modulation and channel coding configurations in one RF channel”.

According to the proponents, Next Generation TV will allow broadcasters to provide viewers with ultra-high definition video, immersive audio, the potential for extensive content personalization – all in the home and on mobile devices of all sorts. It will enhance the delivery of effective, targeted emergency alerts and provide datacasting capability. And it will allow the integration of broadcast programming with Internet Protocol services.

And it will do all those cool things while using the same amount of spectrum currently used by TV stations, but doing so more efficiently. Importantly, broadcast signals using the proposed system will have essentially the same propagation and interference characteristics as currently-authorized broadcast signals. In other words, the Commission would not have to develop new channel allotment standards or revise its current DTV table of allotments.

What’s not to like?

There is a significant disadvantage to ATSC 3.0: As it turns out, the new system is “not backward compatible with existing television receivers”. So all those consumers who tossed out all their analog TV sets seven years ago when DTV arrived will have to go through the same exercise to be able to watch Next Gen TV. And until they do so, the available audience for Next Gen TV stations will be minimal if not non-existent – which would obviously put into question the extent to which stations operating in that mode could be said to be serving the public.

No problem, according to the proponents. The marketplace can take of that, as long as the FCC allows TV licensees to cooperate for the ultimate benefit of their industry (and, of course, the public). The proponents are confident that if stations start to use ATSC 3.0, audiences will embrace it. The question is how to give stations a chance to get it started.

The Commission can make it happen with a minimum of regulatory muss and fuss, we are told.

First, the FCC should revise its rules to permit broadcasters to use ATSC 3.0 if they want to. Since ATSC 3.0 operation would not create interference potential or reduce or extend service areas, this would not be inconsistent with existing Commission rules.

Second, in order to insure that ATSC 3.0 broadcasters continue to provide effective service to the public while they’re waiting for the public to upgrade their receivers, broadcasters should be permitted to cooperate with one another by sharing channels. In other words, a Next Gen TV station would be required to provide not only one free, over-the-air program service in Next Gen mode, but also the same programming in current DTV mode as a signal piggy-backing on another station serving essentially the same audience. Next Gen stations would be subject to all of the routine regulatory requirements that stations currently face – EAS, captioning, video description, etc.

Even if the FCC were to permit this – and there’s no obvious reason it shouldn’t – this plan would require much broadcaster cooperation. Stations would work out among themselves which would be Next Gen broadcasters and which would stick (at least for the time being) with standard DTV. A standard DTV station would agree to carry, in addition to its own programming, the programming of the ATSC 3.0 station, while the ATSC 3.0 station would return the favor by carrying the standard DTV station’s programming on the Next Gen signal. In this way everybody’s programming would be available to all viewers in the market – those sticking with their DTV receivers as well as those upgrading to Next Gen.

As the proponents see it, none of this should affect MVPD carriage for anybody (as long as the Commission confirms that an ATSC 3.0 station remains a “television station” for overall carriage purposes. (Whether or not their confidence on this point is well-placed is unclear, given the precise language of the carriage requirements in the Communications Act – but let’s not be negativists just now.)

So the proposal has a lot going for it: improved service to the audience (both in-home and mobile), increased compatibility with IP-based services, no major rule changes needed, greater efficiency in spectrum use, reliance on marketplace, rather than regulatory, forces. While the plan depends on acceptance of the new technology in the marketplace, don’t forget that one of the proponents here is the CTA, whose members will be the ones designing – and selling – the TV sets necessary to receive ATSC 3.0 transmissions. The fact that CTA is on board here indicates confidence on manufacturers’ part that the plan will work. And perhaps most importantly, Next Generation TV was designed by the same folks who gave us the DTV system that has worked, and worked well.

The Commission’s initial response has been favorable. Chairman Wheeler spoke promisingly about the proposal at the NAB Convention in Las Vegas and shortly after, as noted, the Media Bureau requested comment on it. That latter step, however, while encouraging for the proponents, is not a guaranteed trip to the fast lane to the finish line. The Commission will still have to commence and complete a formal rulemaking proceeding, which would normally take a year at least, often longer. But you never know – this proposal could present so much apparent upside and so little apparent downside that it will move through the process lickety-split. In any event, the journey down that road has started.

Comments on the proposal are due by May 26, 2016; reply comments may be filed by June 27. You can submit comment and replies through the FCC’s ECFS online filing system; refer to Proceeding No. 16-142.



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