I don’t think you’ll find many savvy broadcasters who don’t believe that ATSC 3.0 is absolutely critical if the medium is to remain competitive in the digital world. But what needs to be done is to get the ATSC 3.0 initiative on the same page as the FCC’s incentive auction so that the related TV band repacking takes into account the attributes of the new standard and so the public and broadcasters don’t have to suffer the trauma of TV band disruption twice.
Advanced Television Systems Committee President Mark Richer was upset with me about my Nov. 2 column in which I said that the industry screwed up by adopting in the mid-1990s a digital broadcast standard that provides poor over-the-air coverage. Implicit in my criticism of what’s come to be known as the ATSC standard is that there were other systems available at the time of its adoption that could have done a much better job.
Richer’s point is that there were no better systems then, that what was chosen was the only practical option. Richer says he’s got the minutes of the ATSC meetings to prove it. All I had was a decade of grumbling by some unhappy broadcasters and disappointed viewers. So, until I get into those minutes myself and do some more reporting, I will concede the point.
But Richer and I agreed on some other things that are more important as they have to do with the future of broadcasting rather than its past:
- The current ATSC standard is getting to be a little creaky.
- The industry must move ahead briskly with the development and adoption of a next-generation broadcast standard dubbed ATSC 3.0.
- The implementation of ATSC 3.0 has to be synchronized with the FCC’s incentive auction.
ATSC formally began work on the next-gen standard — dubbed ATSC 3.0 — a year ago. According to Richer, it will be more efficient and robust than today’s plain old ATSC.
By more efficient, Richer means that it will have the ability to broadcast 4K and other super high-res formats that will make today’s HD TV look like 1992 color TV. (Remember those horrible scanning lines when you got close?)
And by more robust, he means that it will blanket markets with signals that can be picked up with indoor antennas in more places as well as on tablets and smartphones, which are becoming increasingly important for TV viewing.
Richer also believes that standard should be flexible enough to accommodate data broadcasting and other non-broadcast services and different spectrum usage schemes — say, one based on 3 MHz or 12 MHz channels rather than just the conventional 6 MHz channels.
Such a broadcast system is devoutly to be wished. Sinclair’s Mark Aitken is a strong proponent. At the CCW conference in New York this week, Aitken said he sees the next-gen system as a means for providing “seamless” service. Viewers who begin watching a show on the 50-inch screen in their living rooms will be able to continue watching it on their tablet or smartphone as they walk out of the house and hop into a car.
“Those are all platforms that broadcasters understand that they have to be on to be relevant,” he said.
Really, I don’t think that you’ll find many savvy broadcasters who don’t believe that ATSC 3.0 is absolutely critical if the medium is to remain competitive in the digital world.
But what needs to be done is to get the ATSC 3.0 on the same page as the FCC’s incentive auction.
The FCC is moving ahead as fast as it can with implementing the incentive auction, which involves buying spectrum from broadcasters who want to give it up and reselling it to wireless broadband carriers.
Part and parcel of the reallocation will be a reorganization or repacking of the TV band, which involves moving stations to new channels, adjusting power levels and reshaping antenna patterns.
As we learned from the transition from analog to digital in 2009, any big change in the fundamentals of broadcasting will be traumatic. And both the repacking and the introduction of a new incompatible broadcast standard like ATSC 3.0 would be big changes. They should happen simultaneously. You don’t want to put the public or broadcasters through a transition twice if you can help it.
Richer thinks it would be unwise for the FCC to come with a repack plan until ATSC 3.0 standard is complete because it will be significantly different from the current standard in what it can do and how it uses the spectrum. “If we are going to do any transition at all, it doesn’t make sense to do it with 25- or 30-year-old technology,” Richer says. “I don’t see the logic in it.”
Mainstream broadcasters are wary of the repacking believing that it will result in the degrading of the broadcast signals, despite legal safeguards saying that the FCC can’t let that happen. They would like to see the incentive auction, repacking and all, go away, and they might be inclined to use ATSC 3.0 to delay the repacking, arguing that repacking should await ATSC 3.0 and then stretching out the timetable for the standard.
That would be a mistake.
Broadcasters don’t need the incentive auction, but they need ATSC 3.0 as soon as they can get it. It will keep them on the cutting edge of TV technology, the place you go for the absolutely best pictures. It will also open up new business opportunities just as original ATSC standard has.
From what I can gather, ATSC 3.0 and the incentive auction could each be ready in three to five years. Broadcasters ought to be make sure they are ready together.