Jerald Fritz of ONE Media says if broadcasters can submit a petition to the commission this summer, the FCC may be able to conduct a rulemaking and give its blessing late this year or early next. That means TV stations could be on the air with the standard sometime in 2017, he adds.
With the Advanced Television Systems Committee making good progress on formulating the ATSC 3.0 next-generation broadcast system, it’s time for broadcasters to start thinking about petitioning the FCC to adopt the system as a national standard, says Jerald Fritz of ONE Media, a leading 3.0 proponent.
Winning the FCC imprimatur for ATSC 3.0 is the next step, Fritz says. It will permit TV stations to air 3.0 signals, while unleashing manufacturers to build the necessary transmission gear and receivers.
If proponents can submit their petition this summer, the FCC may be able to conduct a rulemaking and give its blessing late this year or early next, Fritz says. That means TV stations could be on the air with the standard sometime in 2017, he adds.
Whose names would be on the petition right now is not clear. Fritz says he would expect a broad coalition of broadcasters to sign it, but declines to identify who would be part of it.
ONE Media, for whom Fritz works, is a joint venture of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Coherent Logix that is vying to incorporate its technology in the standard at the ATSC. As EVP of ONE Media, Fritz says he speaks for the company as well as Sinclair.
Other signatories might include Pearl, a consortium of nine major station groups with 170 mostly network affiliated TV stations, and America’s Public Television Stations, which represents noncommercial TV stations. Both have been staunch supporters of 3.0.
Representatives of Pearl and APTS say they have not made a decision to go ahead with a petition. However, APTS’s Stacey Karp says the topic is on the agenda of a board conference call next week.
Thoughts have turned to the FCC because of the progress ATSC has made in sorting through the various competing technologies and settling on a broadcast transmission system — the so-called physical layer — that would be at the heart of the FCC standard.
According to Fritz, work on the layer will be close enough to completion in a couple of months to get the standardizing rulemaking underway.
In the petition, Fritz says, proponents will ask the FCC to permit the use of 3.0 on a non-exclusive basis. In other words, broadcasters who don’t see the upside in the new standard could stick with the old for as long as they like.
The new standard will not interfere with 1.0 or, for that matter, wireless signals, Fritz says. “We are not going to interfere with anybody.”
The petition will also include a transition plan for introducing the new standard without disrupting over-the-air service to millions of TV homes.
According to various estimates, between 10% and 15% of homes still rely on off-air reception. But the new standard will not be compatible with the existing receivers.
As part of the transition plan, Fritz says, broadcasters may propose that they simulcast 1.0 signals for a number of years so that consumers have plenty of time to upgrade to sets with 3.0 tuners. Consumer adoption of 3.0 would be gradual just as color TV was in the 1950s and 1960s and digital TV was in the 2000s, he says.
Fritz envisions the legacy 1.0 signals being broadcast from a transition station in each market shared by all the broadcasters who opt to go to 3.0.
For broadcasters, the length of the transition is not important, Fritz says. But for others it may be, he says. The FCC may want a long period, while makers of TV sets may want a short one. The latter’s principal interest in 3.0 is to sell a new generation of TV sets, he says.
Broadcasters may have to broadcast the legacy 1.0 programming in some form of HD, he adds, because “people are going to expect it, the FCC is going to expect it.”
FCC concerns about transitioning to the new standard should also be mitigated by what Fritz expects will be the widespread availability of “gateway devices.” Hooked to an antenna, the devices will receive 3.0 signals off air and then beam them via Wi-Fi to nearby smart sets, smartphones and tablets.
There is no need to ask that the FCC mandate that smartphones and tablets be fitted with 3.0 receivers, Fritz says. As 3.0 catches on it the marketplace, he says, manufacturers will want to include 3.0 in their devices.
That ONE Media has partnered with Samsung, a major manufacturer of smartphones and TV sets, in the ATSC work “speaks volumes” about its interest in deploying the new standard in its products, he says.
The proponents can make a strong public interest case for 3.0 at the FCC, Fritz says.
- First, he says, 3.0 is necessary so that broadcasters can “keep pace with what our audiences want and their technological expectations. They want to get their programming wherever they are with the highest possible quality.”
- Second, it will provide the Emergency Alert System that the country badly needs. With 3.0, EAS can be robust, mobile and informative. “So, if a hurricane hits in Texas you don’t have to be in your home to get the information you need. You will be able to see the maps in a mobile fashion.”
- Third, 3.0 will provide a competitive check on the wireless industry, he says. With the new standard, broadcasters hope to offer data services to businesses. Such services might include delivering content to ebooks, navigational maps and traffic updates to automobiles or content to digital billboards.
Broadcasters will be able to provide such services far more efficiently and inexpensively than wireless carriers, Fritz says.
“If you are a business out there, would you like to pay $2 per gigabyte to AT&T or Verizon or 2 cents per gigabyte to the local broadcaster?”
When it adopted the digital standard, the FCC authorized broadcasters to provide non-broadcast or ancillary services with their excess spectrum as long as they maintained one channel of free TV.
Finally, the ability to offer datacasting services and broadcasting enhancements like hyperlocal advertising should strengthen broadcasters financially so that they can continue to provide TV for free for years to come, Fritz says. “We need to figure out new ways to replace and grow our revenue.”
Whenever the petition comes, Fritz would expect a receptive FCC. When the FCC adopted the original digital standard — ATSC 1.0 — in 1996, it anticipated that it may need to be updated at some point, Fritz says, citing the FCC order: “We intend to keep abreast of developments and will review our rules as appropriate based on technological developments and marketplace conditions.”
What’s more, he says, FCC officials have promised to put the 3.0 petition out promptly for comment. “As long as it doesn’t slow down the auction, they tell us, we have no opposition to it.”
The “auction” is the incentive auction, in which the FCC hopes to buy spectrum from broadcasters looking to exit the business or double up on other channels. After buying spectrum, the FCC expects to turn around and sell it to wireless carriers at a hefty profit.
The auction is slated for early next year and is the FCC’s top priority.
The drive for 3.0 will not affect the auction, Fritz says. “Those broadcasters who are looking to sell at auction have no reason to fear the new standard,” Fritz says. “There is nothing about this that is going to slow down the auction.”
The proponents’ task of getting anything through the commission will be made more difficult because some of the largest broadcasters — the networks — are not supporting it.
The networks “see themselves solely as televisioners,” Fritz says. “I think the forward-looking broadcasters recognize that we are not all about television. It’s the most critical part, but there are other things we can do to monetize our spectrum.”
Because the networks have a powerful position on the NAB board, they have prevented NAB from making 3.0 an “essential focus” and forced others — the Pearl group and Sinclair and APTS — to take the lead.
Fritz doesn’t think the networks would oppose a petition. “They are studying it, they are looking at it, but they are not coming out against it and I think that will continue.”