The biggest change in broadcasting since the conversion from analog to digital — perhaps even since the transition from black-and-white to color — is coming to television.
And thanks to the commitment of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, it may be coming soon.
The change is a new television broadcast standard — the first in 20 years — and with it the promise of extraordinary leaps in picture quality, sound fidelity, mobile service, interactivity, spectral efficiency, targeted addressability, future adaptability and significant new revenue potential for public television stations.
The standard is called ATSC 3.0, Next Generation, or simply Next Gen. It’s the product of years of effort and creativity on the part of engineers, broadcast executives, equipment manufacturers and other experts, operating as the Advanced Television Services Committee (ATSC) to create a new platform on which to launch the future of television.
America’s Public Television Stations, together with the National Association of Broadcasters, the Consumer Technology Association and the AWARN Alliance, have petitioned the FCC to approve this new standard.
We asked the commission to move quickly so that deployment of ATSC 3.0 can coincide with the post-spectrum auction transition, a process that requires a restructuring of the television channel assignments of hundreds of public and commercial television stations. These channels are to be repacked in a narrower band of broadcast spectrum over the next few years, and the process will require local broadcasters to invest in new transmitters and other equipment.
Under an ideal scenario, channel repacking would coincide with the introduction of ATSC 3.0, on a voluntary, market-by-market basis. Broadcasters would be able to invest in this new technology of the future, buying 3.0-compatible equipment for which they will be compensated during the FCC’s channel repacking process.
In addition, we have asked the commission to approve rule changes to permit local simulcasting, enabling ATSC 3.0 to be deployed while broadcasts in the current digital television (DTV) standard remain available without interruption to viewers.
To his great credit and with the enthusiastic approval of commercial and public broadcasters, Chairman Wheeler put our petition out for public comment in record time. He had promised to do so at the NAB convention April 20, and it was out the door at the FCC exactly one week later.
In a conversation with NAB President Gordon Smith and me during the convention, the chairman made it clear that he well understands that ATSC 3.0 will give the broadcasting industry important new competitive tools. It will enhance the viewing experience of television consumers and use a portion of our spectrum to speed the digital revolution — and add robust competition — in new places and with services well within our collective reach. “My mantra has been competition, competition, competition,” he said, “and this is a big new step in that direction.”
These new places include broad swaths of rural America, for example, which our friends in the wireless industry can never reach economically. And the enhanced services include a much bigger pipeline to deliver educational content to schools and homes.
A variety of public safety applications, such as the national FirstNet public safety network and interoperability and datacasting technologies for local law enforcement and first responder organizations, will also be possible. Interoperability enables emergency communications between public safety agencies and with the public; it is one of the most important services identified for public television stations by both local and federal officials.
Another benefit of ATSC 3.0 will be more competitive pricing in spectrum leasing. Rates may be significantly lower than those currently prevailing in the marketplace.
For public television stations, these enhanced services offer important new revenue opportunities, perhaps big enough to have a substantial effect on the system’s overall finances. In public safety alone, we have reasonable prospects for a new $100 million annual revenue stream over the next decade or so. And APTS is developing a business plan for streaming educational material to schools and homes, especially in rural and remote areas, at very economical rates.
These new service opportunities are possible because ATSC 3.0 greatly improves the efficiency of transmissions on the 6 MHz of radio spectrum on which every full-power American television station operates.
Instead of the current bit rate of 19.4 megabits per second — the rate at which data flows through TV channels to deliver broadcast and other signals to the public — the new standard will enable a bit rate closer to 30 Mbps. TV broadcasters will be able to do everything they do now — delivering high-definition and standard-definition multicast channels simultaneously — and a great deal more.
Innovation and competition have been the watchwords of the FCC throughout the Obama Administration. In Congress, telecommunications policymakers from both parties have also encouraged broadcasters to innovate and compete. And this policy priority is not new. In 1981, in adopting Section 399B (b)(1) of the Communications Act, Congress directed public stations to provide revenue-generating services in order to contribute to the ongoing public-private partnership on which public station funding rests.
And FCC rules have permitted stations to offer subscription-based services on non-public portions of their analog transmissions in the VBI (Vertical Blanking Interval) since 1985.
Development of the ATSC 3.0 standard is truly a watershed event in the history of public television, and of television in general. The sooner the FCC approves it, the sooner we can get on with the progress we’re poised to make.
Patrick Butler is president of America’s Public Television Stations, a nonprofit membership organization that provides strategic guidance, research and policy representation of local pubcasters before Congress and federal agencies.
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