UPDATE (4/27/16):  The FCC has solicited comments on the Petition for Rulemaking.  Comments are due by May 26, 2016 and reply comments are due by June 27, 2016.

There is a lot of buzz in the bATSC 3roadcast industry about ATSC 3.0.  Yesterday, a coalition of groups representing broadcasters and equipment manufacturers took an important step in the transition to the next generation broadcast standard, asking the FCC to adopt rules allowing television stations to begin broadcast transmissions utilizing the rapidly evolving new standard.  And at the NAB Show next week, there will be countless displays showing off the potential of “Next Generation TV.”  With that backdrop, we thought that it would be a good time to highlight several things that broadcasters should know about ATSC 3.0.

  1. Although the Standard is Rapidly Evolving, It Remains Under Development:  Once adopted, the ATSC 3.0 standard will include three layers: (1) a “physical layer” that defines the core transmission system, including the RF characteristics of the standard, (2) a “management and protocols layer” that specifies how information will be delivered within the signal, and (3) an “applications and presentation layer” that defines the elements that the viewer experiences, including video and audio coding.  Each of these layers consists of numerous components.  So far, members of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) have approved only a single (but important) portion of the physical layer, the System Discovery and Signaling portion (the so-called “bootstrap” mechanism).  Another core component of the physical layer—the “Physical Layer Protocol”—will go to balloting as a proposed standard at the end of May.Although ATSC President Mark Richer has said that he does not expect all of the nearly two dozen components to be approved until Q1 2017, the adoption of the physical layer is significant, as that layer defines the signal’s spectrum usage, potential interference, and channel assignments.Because the full standard has not been adopted, and some components have not even been promoted to candidate standard, any demonstrations that you see likely will incorporate some proposed components and may entirely omit components that are not critical to the particular demonstration.
  1. ATSC Adoption of the Standard is Just the First Step: ATSC is a private standards body whose membership includes broadcasters, equipment manufacturers, multichannel video programming distributors, consulting engineers, and other interested parties.  Because the current ATSC 1.0 standard is specifically incorporated in the FCC’s rules by reference, all DTV transmissions must comply with the existing standard.  Accordingly, before broadcasters can begin ATSC 3.0 transmissions, the FCC will need to revise its rules to authorize use of the new standard.  The Petition filed yesterday proposes limiting the FCC’s role to incorporating only the System Discovery and Signaling component into its rules, which will allow the industry to adopt and/or modify the remaining components of the ATSC 3.0 standard without the need for government approval.
  1. The Transition May Be the Toughest Part: As veterans of the DTV transition will recall, transitioning from one television standard to the next is no easy task—especially when the new standard is not backward compatible with the old one.  Complicating efforts this time, the FCC will not be assigning broadcasters companion channels for ATSC 3.0 broadcasts.The Petition for Rulemaking filed with the FCC proposes “a voluntary, market-driven implementation” based on local simulcasting.  As described in the proposal:

    Stations electing to deploy Next Generation TV will enter into market-by-market deployment plans that will rely on local simulcasting agreements to ensure the ongoing availability of programming in the current DTV format.  Specifically, a temporary “host” broadcaster would agree to carry on its DTV subchannels the programming of those stations broadcasting with the Next Generation TV format.  The “host” station’s programming would be carried reciprocally as a programming stream on one of the stations deploying the Next Generation TV standard.

    For this to work, broadcasters will need to engage in an unprecedented level of local cooperation.  And simulcasting plans will be complicated by post-auction channel sharing and other multicast commitments that may require some broadcasters to squeeze three or more DTV stations onto a single channel.

  1. A Mobile-Friendly Standard Does Not Guarantee Mobile Delivery: One of the most promising aspects of ATSC 3.0 is the ability for broadcasters to reach mobile devices, such as cell phones and tablets, over-the-air.  But just because the standard is designed to be mobile-friendly does not mean that you’ll be able to watch your local over-the-air stations as soon as they flip the switch to begin Next Generation TV broadcasts.  The antennas used in mobile phones are designed to receive specific frequencies, and most devices on the market today are not designed to receive the frequencies used for broadcast television (hence the DTV dongle).  Moreover, even devices that have the necessary equipment may not be set up to utilize it.  This has been the case for years with FM antennas, which are incorporated into most mobile phones but only recently have been enabled by manufacturers and carriers.  Thus, broadcasters will need the cooperation of wireless providers and mobile device manufacturers to make broadcast to mobile a reality.
  1. ATSC 3.0 Could Change Broadcasting As We Know It:  If Next Generation TV becomes a reality, it has the potential to dramatically transform the broadcast television landscape.  Because the ATSC 3.0 standard is based on Internet Protocol, traditional programming would become just one possible use for a broadcast television channel.  Supporters of ATSC 3.0 tout the ability to broadcast in 4K and beyond, to incorporate virtual reality views and higher frame rates, improved audio, better and more targeted emergency alerting, and viewer personalization and activity.  Sinclair has even suggested that it can use single frequency networks (multiple transmitters operating on the same frequency, similar to what wireless providers use today) to broadcast a national multichannel TV programming service or provide data delivery services to third parties.  If ATSC 3.0 lives up to its promise, it could represent a blank slate on which local broadcasters can design their future.

The transition to ATSC 3.0 offers both challenges and opportunities to the broadcast industry.  If nothing else, it should be exciting to watch the incredible effort that will be required to make Next Generation TV a reality.

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