FCC Launches Next-Gen Broadcast TV Standard | Multichannel

A politically divided FCC has voted 3-2 to allow for the voluntary rollout of the ATSC 3.0 advanced transmission standard. That came over the objections of Democrats on the commission and in Congress, who argued that it was a gift to Sinclair or a rush to a standard that could leave viewers paying for the change through new TVs or equipment of higher cable prices. 

ATSC 3.0 is the new broadcast transmission standard that will allow TV stations to do video on demand and other interactive services using a broadband return path for viewers with internet access, and provide 4K video, advanced emergency alerts and more.  The standard is still years from a widespread rollout, but the countdown began Thursday (Nov. 16).  Sinclair has been a big supporter of the standard and has a handful of patents. The FCC's won't exclude ATSC 3.0 signals from retrans negotiations, though the mandatory simulcasts of old and new transmission standards must be essentially the same, which MVPDs had pushed for.

The new standard is not backward-compatible, so it will require new sets or adaptors and broadcasters will have to simulcast in the current ATSC 1.0 standard if they choose to broadcast ATSC 3.0. They will team up with another broadcaster in the market, with one stations delivering the 1.0 signals and the other the 3.0 signals.

Broadcasters will have a chance to make a case for flash-cutting to ATSC 3.0 rather than simulcasting, and Low Power TVs will be allowed to flash cut without simulcasting.  MVPDs must continue to carry ATSC signals but don't have to carry the new 3.0 signals. 

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly called it a consumer-driven, flexible and market-driven approach that would let the consumer decide what ATSC.o would look like in the future. He said it was not that he didn't have any questions himself, but that it was too early to answer them. 

O'Rielly said he was pleased that the FCC had backed off a proposal that it mandate 15-second ad minimums for ATSC 3.0, pointing out the recent use of 6-second ads by one broadcaster.

He said that the rollout is voluntary for both broadcasters and consumers, dismissing the parade of horribles that have been offered up by the critics of the proposal. He said broadcasters have every incentive to keep delivering viewable signals to viewers.

Chairman Ajit Pai suggested it was a historic day for broadcasters, for public safety and, for viewers getting better pictures and more services. He also pointed out public broadcasters were big backers of the proposal. He said it could help them provide distance learning. He said it would be a voluntary, market-driven transition. He said no consumer would have to buy a new TV or dongle to get the ATSC 3.0 signal if they did not want to, meaning it was up to them since they would still have access to current signals.

Related: NAB: ATSC 3.0 Will Reinvent Free TV

He said critics wanted to strangle the tech in its cradle and were instilling false fears and trying to get regulators to stall progress. He said the FCC was rejecting the attempt to block technological progress. He said a yes vote was a vote for innovation, competition, better pictures, better sound, public safety, enhanced features, public TV and leadership. He said he was proud to vote 'yes.'

“We have advocated for a robust, broadcast-centric digital standard since 1997, and we are gratified to see that the ATSC, broadcasters and the government have now agreed to do just that,” said Sinclair President Christopher Ripley, of the vote. “True mobile TV and data distribution, compatible with the Internet, can now become a reality. The Sinclair-reimagined, ground-up standard, designed by and for broadcasters, has been enhanced and refined by the detailed contributions of hundreds of ATSC volunteer engineers resulting in a platform that will be the envy of the world. Its television and data capabilities promise spectacular benefits to consumers, broadcasters and equipment manufactures alike.”