A bipartisan group of senators has rallied around an industry push to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) behind the build out and deployment of the next-generation broadcast television standard ATSC 3.0.
The push comes more than two months after a consortium of broadcasters urged the FCC and its chairperson, Jessica Rosenworcel, to form a task force to develop ways to help support the growth and adoption of the standard, which also goes by the consumer brand name NextGen TV.
Broadcasters assert that NextGen TV is needed to help local television stations and national networks better compete against streaming services and other video options. Around 60% of Americans live in a community where NextGen TV signals are available, though there currently is no national mandate that would require broadcasters to shift away from the current digital standard, ATSC 1.0, to NextGen TV.
In a letter sent by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), officials said an FCC task force could help the industry figure out the best ways to deploy NextGen TV and address pain points as they arise. The task force would also signal support by the FCC for the standard, similar to the FCC’s approval of new Wi-Fi and wireless phone standards.
Last week, federal lawmakers in the U.S. Senate joined the NAB and others in urging the FCC to support and focus on the buildout of NextGen TV. A letter penned by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), Senator Todd Young (R-IN) and 25 other lawmakers largely echoed the talking points found in the NAB’s letter filed with the FCC in late January.
“Just as the FCC has successfully championed other innovative technologies like 5G, Wi-Fi, and the 2009 digital TV transition, we believe there is an essential role for the FCC in helping broadcasters and viewers fully realize the potential of Next Gen TV,” the letter said. “We urge the FCC to take an active role in addressing the complex – but imminently solvable – questions posed by the transition from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0, including working with Congress, public broadcasters, and industry to ensure consumers with legacy TVs are not harmed by any changes.”
Proponents of NextGen TV say the new technology will allow broadcasters to deploy better ad solutions that can target consumers based on their location, among other key data points, similar to connected TV advertisements on streaming services. It also allows broadcasters to offer higher-quality video, multichannel audio and encrypted signals to prevent content piracy.
No broadcaster is currently taking full advantage of the capabilities offered by NextGen TV: In most areas, one or two “lighthouse” stations are simply simulcasting the high-definition feed of a major network affiliate (in around a dozen markets, a local feed of a PBS member station is also available). No broadcaster is presently transmitting a signal in ultra-high definition, even though improvements in video compression technology allow for those signals through NextGen TV.
Still, industry groups say NextGen TV is the next big thing, and the sooner the FCC rallies around it, the faster consumers will be able to enjoy it. Additionally, broadcasters say NextGen TV will allow them to make more investments in over-the-air television, including a better commitment to local news programming. Lawmakers are swayed by this promise, too.
“A successful ATSC 3.0 transition should be a priority of the FCC going forward to ensure that local broadcasters can continue to best serve their communities as a trusted source of local news,” the senators wrote in their letter last week.
One big question that remains unanswered is whether broadcasters will commit to making their signals free to access over the long term. While the current digital broadcast standard largely requires over-the-air stations to send their signals unencrypted and in the clear, ATSC 3.0 opens up the possibility for broadcasters to lock their signals behind a paywall, should they choose to do so.
Kerry Oslund, the vice president of strategy and business development at E. W. Scripps, said his company currently has no plans to move away from free broadcast television.
“Scripps has made a long-term, multi-billion dollar commitment to free television,” Oslund wrote in a comment on LinkedIn. “Not only that, we don’t keep our licenses if we don’t deliver free TV.”
After it was pointed out that the FCC doesn’t require broadcasters to transmit freely-accessible signals as a condition of licensing, Oslund clarified that Scripps’ decision to offer free access to their ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 signals was meant to demonstrate a commitment to serving the public interest, which is a requirement of being licensed.
“There is indeed an implied customary general acceptance that free is the quid-pro-quo or arguable key aspect of ‘interest, necessity and convenience,'” Oslund said.
Scripps and others continue to push lawmakers and others to get support behind NextGen TV, even with critical questions about the standard and its adoption remaining — including whether consumers are actually interested in the standard and, if so, how they’ll get access to those signals.
That last point could be tricky, because manufacturers have indicated a hesitancy to include ATSC 3.0 tuners in their hardware until they get better information on consumer interest and the finer details of the standard itself.
Last month, officials with TCL told technology website The Verge their TV sets won’t include NextGen TV tuners during the first half of this year. Likewise, a spokesperson for Vizio said they aren’t integrating ATSC 3.0 tuners into their hardware.
Other TV makers, including LG, Sony and Samsung, have started offering TV sets with ATSC 3.0 tuners in them, but have largely relegated that technology to their higher-end — and more-costly — models.
Some companies have expressed interest in integrating ATSC 3.0 tuners in new hardware, but say the ever-shifting landscape of certification and standards adds complexity to those plans.
Last year, Canadian electronics firm Nuvyyo said it was indefinitely delaying a version of its Tablo over-the-air digital video recorder that was set to offer ATSC 3.0 compatibility for the first time.
“ATSC 3.0 is a very new standard, and certifications and other technical issues have caused unforeseen delays,” Nuvyyo CEO Grant Hall wrote in an email to customers. Hall said customers who reserved their device would receive their deposit back. In March, officials at Nuvyyo — which was quietly acquired by Scripps last year — said they were still committed to making and selling a NextGen TV-compatible version of their device, but the issues that caused last year’s delay still weren’t resolved.