Sam Matheny, Capitol Broadcasting’s VP of policy and innovation, has several “big buckets” of issues that he says need to be studied and resolved before a successful ATSC 3.0 transition can take place. Among them are determining the impact of the transition on the audience, the possibility for interference, the duration of the transition, the availability of spectrum and the impact of the transition on direct-to-home satellite, cable TV and telco TV partners.
Next-Gen Transition Demanding Answers
It took 13 years for TV broadcasting to transition from analog NTSC to digital ATSC. Now, with the Advanced Television Systems Committee hard at work on a new broadcast standard, ATSC 3.0, it’s time to start planning for the another transition that, like the last, makes broadcasters, government, consumer electronics manufacturers and the public all “winners,” says Sam Matheny, VP of policy and innovation at Capitol Broadcasting and an ATSC board member.
“Independent of the actual standards development, we as an industry need to be thinking about how we actually make the transition happen,” Matheny says.
“It is imperative that as we evaluate all of the technical options [for ATSC 3.0], we keep in mind that there are really viewers out there, and they don’t know or care about all of the technical details of how the magic of broadcasting happens,” he says.
“How are the [new] receivers going to get into the market, and how are we going to educate viewers about what will be required of them?”
It will probably fall to the National Association of Broadcasters to work with the consumer electronics industry and the government in coming up with the transition plan, Matheny says. NAB EVP of Communications Dennis Wharton confirms the association “will certainly take a leadership role” when the new standard becomes available. But for right now it is up to ATSC members to keep in mind how the transition can be done as they go about defining the new standard.
Matheny, who tried to raise the transition consciousness of ATSC members in a speech at the group’s annual meeting in Washington last week, says that at this point he only has questions about the transition, and they fall into several “big buckets,” including the impact on the public, the possibility for interference, the duration of the transition, the availability of spectrum and the impact on cable and satellite operators.
The “handshakes and interfaces” with cable and satellite will need to be tested, he says. “How long does that need to take before everybody feels competent and comfortable?”
Timing is critical, he says. “What’s going to be the start date? What’s going to be the end date?”
The answers have to consider many factors, including how long it will take broadcast vendors and consumer electronics manufacturers to supply the needed RF transmission components and consumer receivers, respectively, he says.
Another key question is whether the transition should be staged or done as a flash cut, he says.
For the analog-to-digital transition, the FCC granted stations second channels so they could simulcast analog and digital signals. Viewers had until the June 2009 analog cut-off to buy a new digital TV or set-top converter boxes.
“Is that a model that can be replicated this time?” asks Matheny. “Or, do we need to do something different? That ties right to the auction.”
The possibility of interference — in-market, out-of-market, co-channel and adjacent-channel — must also be examined, particularly in light of the FCC’s post-incentive auction repack of the TV band, he says.
“If you are doing some sort of simulcast, which I think is definitely one of the transition scenarios, you’ve got the possibility for interference between the two systems,” he says. “Then, really, the question is: What are the levers we can use to manage that interference?”
ATSC President Mark Richer says he expects ATSC 3.0 to provide broadcasters some tools for the transition. “ATSC 3.0 will let broadcasters make a lot of different tradeoffs in terms of capacity versus robustness or performance, which may open up some options for broadcasters.”
“A station, for example, might be able to operate at a lower power to begin with and then increase the power as the transition moves on with the advantage being the interference criteria would be different at different power levels, possibly making it easier to use a given channel in a market during the transition,” Richer says.
Jay Adrick, an independent consultant and former VP of Harris Broadcast (now GatesAir), believes that the FCC should put off the post-auction band repacking until after the adoption of ATSC 3.0, now slated or late 2015 or early 2016.
By doing so, he says, the FCC will be able to maximize the spectrum it can recover in the repacking, and broadcasters will be able to maximize their service offerings.
“A pair of stations with common ownership might today have seven services across two channels,” says Adrick. “They could easily put those seven services and maybe some more on a single channel running 3.0, and they of course would have lower operating costs because they would only be operating one transmitter rather than two.”
However, Adrick recalls an exchange between William Lake, head of the FCC Media Bureau, and Mark Aitken, VP, advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group, during the 2013 ATSC annual meeting. At that time, he says, Lake “was adamant that the FCC was not going to wait” for development of ATSC 3.0 before proceeding with the auction and repack.
The FCC does not seem to “understand what the possibilities are” and how a delay to accommodate ATSC 3.0’s development timetable could increase the likelihood of a successful spectrum auction, Adrick says.
The Spectrum Act gives the FCC until Sept. 30, 2022, to complete the incentive auction and repack, Adrick says. “If by the beginning of 2019, you were to have the auction out of the way and declared over, the 36-month reimbursement clock could begin to run and still leave extra time till the end of the authorization,” he says.
“At that point, ATSC 3.0 would be far enough along and be a standard that the industry –both on the transmit and receive sides — could respond with equipment,” Adrick says.
The law gives broadcasters 36 months to move to their news channels under the FCC repacking plan if they want to qualify for government reimbursement of moving costs.