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FCC Approves ATSC 3.0 Standard

Signals start of change for TV transmission and the CE industry that delivers & sells the new sets

Capping more than five years of intense technical work on a “Next Gen” TV platform, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on Thursday that is has authorized the ATSC 3.0 standard for implementation by broadcasters.

While widespread use by broadcasters is still not likely until next year, this action paved the way for the next steps needed for the final implementation, deployment and public availability. This includes items such as the installation of new transmission equipment by broadcasters and the finalization of the components needed by manufacturers to produce sets with built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners, as well as outboard gateway products that will interface with existing televisions.

For the most part, the decision was positively received. Prior to the vote, Gary Shapiro, Consumer Technology Association (CTA) president and CEO, noted: “Next Gen TV delivers overwhelming consumer benefit and does not hurt any existing products.” He added, “ATSC 3.0 will deliver advanced emergency warnings and market-driven flexibility, so consumers can be safer and enjoy the highest-quality, most innovative over-the-air TV experience ever.”

Similar comments were made by Mark Richer, ATSC president, who pointed to the new systems Internet Protocol (IP) backbone that will “greatly enhances the capabilities of broadcast television to deliver enhanced and personalized content for viewers.” On the manufacturer side, Dr. Jong G. Kim, senior VP at LG Electronics and president of Zenith R& Lab, called it “a seminal moment for Next Gen TV.”

Others with more focused involvement pointed to the benefits of the numerous features of ATSC 3.0. John Lawson, executive director of the AWARN Alliance, the force behind the system’s emergency notification system, pointed to improvements that will “deliver geo-targeted, rich-media emergency messages to a wide range of enable consumer devices.” When fully deployed, Lawson pointed to how this will “save lives and speed disaster recovery.”

A key point to note is that, unlike the transition from analog to digital ATSC 1.0 broadcasting, broadcasters are not forced to switch; use of the new system is voluntary, not mandatory. Along those lines, the FCC Report & Order requires broadcasters that do switch to ATSC 3.0 must partner with another station in their local market to simulcast programming on the new system in the current ATSC 1.0 standard so that viewers may continue to receiver existing broadcast services without the need to purchase new equipment. This will, however, mean that OTA cord-cutters will have to rescan their sets’ tuners to find the new physical channel for a particular station’s stream. Toward that end, the FCC also required broadcasters to provide advance on-air notification to educate consumers about any changes necessary due to Next Gen TV deployment and simulcasting.

Within the system there are many improvements, but as was the case during the digital transition where HDTV was possible, but not required, broadcasters may pick and choose the advanced capabilities they offer. Among those are 4K/Ultra HD capability, immersive and interactive audio, other interactive and geo-targeted, localized, content, information delivery such as expanded closed caption services, AWARN’s advanced alert system and more. Embodied in the new system is the switch to a different modulation scheme that will make it possible for viewing in moving vehicles, something not possible to any great degree with ATSC 3.0.

For all the excitement, there were also some words of caution. Those opposed to approval at this time expressed concern with such issues as cable carriage and privacy. For example, while applauding the FCC’s decision, Pearl TV, an organization comprising more than 350 network-affiliated stations, also mentioned in a statement by Anne Schelle, its managing director: “We are cognizant of the concerns raised by some commissioners, and we will work hard to ensure that the benefits of broadcasting will continue to be widely available during the deployment of Next Gen TV.”

While the three confirming commissioners, led by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, issued strong support, the two dissenting commissioners pointed to numerous concerns, led by worries about the lack of backward compatibility when the five-year simulcast mandate sunsets. As an example, while Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in here dissent that “there is a lot to be excited about with this new standard,” she also expressed concern about a “rush to this standard.”

More bluntly, Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn’s dissent was quite direct: “This Order is not ready for primetime.”

That aside, the FCC’s approval puts ATSC 3.0 in full motion toward a 2018 launch. Already in use for broadcasting with 4K in South Korea, there is no hard timetable at this point for either widespread broadcasting or consumer product availability. However, this move signals the start of a major change for all aspects of broadcast television transmission and the consumer electronics industry that must deliver and sell the new sets. There will undoubtedly be both pitfalls and exciting profit opportunities for all along the way.