The Pearl consortium of several large commercial TV station groups and the Association of Public Television Stations are expected to take the lead asking for FCC approval of the next-gen transmission standard. They want to “sync up” the transition to it with the forced migration to new channels that many stations may have to make if the FCC’s incentive auction of TV spectrum is successful next spring.
Major commercial and noncommercial broadcasters are planning to ask the FCC to bless key parts of a new ATSC 3.0 standard early next year — more than a year before the Advanced Television Systems Committee is slated to approve the entire standard itself, according to informed sources.
The Pearl consortium of several large commercial TV station groups and the Association of Public Television Stations are expected to take the lead in petitioning the FCC because they want to “sync up” the transition to the new standard with the forced migration to new channels that many stations may have to make if the FCC’s incentive auction of TV spectrum is successful next spring, the sources say.
Pearl and APTS are at the forefront because the National Association of Broadcasters has been sidelined by a lack of consensus on the new standard.
The Big Four networks want the association to keep a low profile on the issue, at least for the time being, while other NAB members argue that it would be premature to file at the FCC before ATSC 3.0 becomes final, sources said.
“They [NAB] are effectively neutered,” said an industry source close to the issue.
Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman, said in response: “NAB and a large number of individual broadcasters are actively involved in the ATSC process and are excited about the progress being made.”
Anne Schelle, managing director of Pearl, a coalition of broadcasters whose members include Hearst Television, Graham Media and Media General, declined comment as did a representative of APTS.
The sense of urgency among some TV industry executives is being driven partly by the fact that a number of stations —as many as a 1,000 — may have to move to new channels after the incentive auction, in which the FCC hopes to buy spectrum from broadcasters and then sell it to wireless carriers.
Moving to new channels in what has come to be called the repacking on the TV band would require buying costly new transmission systems — antennas, transmitters and associated equipment.
If the new ATSC 3.0 standard is not in place before the repack, some stations may have replace some of the newly installed transmission gear when 3.0 is finally approved and implemented.
“Giving broadcasters, who will be updating their facilities [for the repack], the option of including next-gen capabilities is both wise public policy and an important competitive boost with positive benefits for our industry and our viewers,” said Jerald Fritz, EVP of ONE Media, an ATSC 3.0 proponent backed by the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The door for initial FCC consideration of 3.0 was opened by the ATSC’s Sept. 29 announcement that a technology group had promoted ATSC 3.0’s critical transmission component, or physical layer, to “candidate” status.
Before adopting a new final standard, the ATSC first designates a proposed standard to a so-called candidate standard. A candidate standard usually includes the key technical parts of a standard, which is then made available for industry testing and review.
If industry testing reveals critical technological shortcomings, tweaks will be made in the standard, and subsequent votes will be held before a final standard is established.
The candidate period for the ATSC 3.0 transmission standard is set to close next April 4.
Under the ATSC’s current timeline, a committee vote on all of the parts of a final standard is not expected until sometime in 2017.
Although the final 3.0 standard is more than a year away, some proponents argue that the FCC’s review of the standard can begin now because the key parts of the new standard that are of most concern to the agency have already been established.
The industry’s 3.0 FCC petition, according to sources, will include much of the technical analysis that the agency usually needs to consider when approving a new standard.
“Sending the physical layer to candidate standard clears the way for the FCC to adopt new rules for the broadcast service,” said ONE Media’s Fritz.
“We’ve got enough done now that the FCC could make some preliminary analysis and decisions about the technology,” said another source close to the issue.
In an effort to avoid ruffling FCC feathers, industry sources said that they are likely to hold off on filing a petition seeking approval of the transmission component of the 3.0 standard until after the application deadline for broadcasters who want to sell their channels in the 2016 auction passes at the end of this year.
Some broadcast executives are concerned that FCC officials, who view the incentive auction as a major priority, might perceive an earlier 3.0 filing as a potential impediment to station auction participation.
3.0 proponents say the new standard could provide a major boost to TV station values by clearing the way for mobile broadcasting, targeted advertising and new data businesses.
A new standard is expected to generate billions of dollars in royalty fees for companies with patented technologies in 3.0 — including ONE Media, Samsung and LG Electronics.
But 3.0 proponents still need to get federal approval to use the new technology and implement a transition plan to minimize disruption for millions of consumers who watch broadcast TV off air. 3.0 signals will not be compatible with the hundreds of millions of TV sets now in use.
It’s unclear what kind of reception a Pearl-APTS petition would receive at the FCC.
In a speech during the NAB Show in Las Vegas last year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that the FCC would be “ready and responsive when the standard is completed.”
However, neither Wheeler nor any of the other commissioners has spoken of the standard since. “Nobody at the FCC is pushing for ATSC 3.0, but they’ve made clear they’re not going to stand in the way,” said one 3.0 proponent.