Station leaders at TechCon weigh moving ahead with ATSC 3.0

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LAS VEGAS — By now, most public TV managers know all about the benefits and challenges the new ATSC 3.0 transmission standard promises for their stations.

On the plus side, the standard offers higher-quality video and audio, better compression to pack more data into limited spectrum, interactivity for viewers and the ability to personalize content for different audiences.

The downsides to Next Gen TV, as ATSC 3.0 is also called, deal with funding and an uncharted path for the transition, which will be driven by consumer adoption. Unlike during the analog-to-digital conversion a decade ago, no federal funding is available to pay for new equipment and no second channel is being provided to stations for simultaneous operation in ATSC 3.0 and the current ATSC 1.0 standard.

Current ATSC 1.0 tuners can’t receive ATSC 3.0 transmissions, and 2019 is the earliest new ATSC 3.0 tuners will begin appearing in TV sets. And while stations can begin broadcasting in ATSC 3.0 right away, they must arrange with other stations in the market to provide an ATSC 1.0 “lighthouse” simulcast serving the same area for at least five years.

Against all those headwinds, station leaders who gathered at PBS TechCon on Wednesday expressed optimism about making the transition to ATSC 3.0 work for them, even as many raised questions about the logistics and expenses involved.

“As a system, we can’t leave the planning and technological development of ATSC 3.0 to commercial broadcasters,” warned Public Media Co. CEO Marc Hand. He told TechCon attendees that commercial licensees have lined up in two opposing camps.

One group, led by prominent commercial operator Sinclair Broadcast Group, seeks to pool DTV spectrum in each market, providing only a minimum of free over-the-air TV services and leasing out most of the available bandwidth for data services that will bring in new revenue streams. The other group, called Pearl, is focused on preserving the current over-the-air TV model. Each station will continue to operate its own transmitter, with increased ad revenue coming from a greater variety of free TV services.

Hand says both groups have already started testing their models, Sinclair in Dallas–Fort Worth and Pearl in Phoenix.

“Those market tests are important, but they can’t be left to commercial broadcasters,” he said. “We need our own tests.”

With that in mind, Hand organized a consortium of 24 licensees representing 81 stations around the country. Stations in his Public Media Venture Group reach 188 million people nationwide, representing a diverse mix of market sizes, licensee types and repack status, he says.

The impending repack of DTV broadcast channels, while not directly connected to the ATSC 3.0 transition, still creates a mix of opportunities for some stations and costs for others. At North Carolina’s statewide UNC-TV, Senior Director of Technology Fred Engel says 11 of his 12 transmitter sites are getting repacked to new channels, which means the network will be able to buy new ATSC 3.0–capable exciters and other equipment with money from the FCC’s repack fund.

Further south in Arkansas, AETN executive director Courtney Pledger says none of her statewide network’s transmitters are getting repacked. And with a two-year state appropriation cycle, it will be a while before any funding for ATSC 3.0 becomes available.

In most markets, the requirement for lighthouse ATSC 1.0 simulcasts will mean some degree of cooperation with commercial competitors. But the diverging nature of public TV’s localized licensees and commercial TV’s ownership consolidation can pose its own challenges, as New Mexico PBS GM Franz Joachim learned.

“The real epiphany,” he says, “came when I started to have conversations with the other commercial stations in Albuquerque. I got either blank stares or ‘Yeah, we know, corporate will tell us what we’re doing whenever the time comes,'” he said — leaving him to figure out his ATSC 3.0 future without much in-market consultation.

With two radio frequency channels already at his disposal — “I could lighthouse myself,” Joachim notes — he came to the realization that what he really needs to get the ball rolling on ATSC 3.0 isn’t viewers. There won’t be any until TVs start hitting the market in another year.

“I needed institutional partners who need access to my spectrum, because I’ve got a lot of it,” he said. New Mexico PBS is focusing on the data that its new ATSC 3.0 signal will be able to deliver to educational and public safety partners.

“Do I care if a viewer can see me [in ATSC 3.0]? They’ll see me when they buy a TV, because by then I’ll be there for them,” Joachim said.

Other broadcasters are more skeptical. In Los Angeles, RF spectrum is scarce, and widely available broadband services are capable of providing much more data bandwidth than ATSC 3.0, says KLCS director of engineering Alan Popkin.

Even station leaders who are pushing forward with ATSC 3.0 acknowledge doubts about the time it will take for consumer interest to catch up with the technology.

“What’s in it for the consumer?” asked UNC-TV’s Engel. “I think we see a lot of what’s in it for us.”

Engel thinks public TV’s mindset on ATSC 3.0 will land somewhere between Sinclair’s data-driven approach and the Pearl group’s focus on more linear TV streams.

“We have to continue to provide great linear TV services, but what else can we bolt on to that? Convincing the consumer is what we want to be able to do,” he said.

Additional TechCon sessions focused on the public-safety benefits of ATSC 3.0 and business aspects of the conversion, including the challenges that will come up as some public TV stations share their spectrum and transmitters with commercial partners.

Those include how to price those shared lighthouse services, especially when commercial stations are broadcasting bandwidth-intensive content such as sports, says Terry Douds of WOUB-TV in Athens, Ohio.

“If you’re taking content from a commercial station to broadcast in 3.0, and it happens to be the Super Bowl, and it goes out, who’s going to be liable if there’s an outage in a shared transmission?” he said. “Get your lawyers involved early and often.”

Hand urged pubcasters to get involved in some of the regulatory questions that linger over the transition, including the controversial requirement that ATSC 1.0 lighthouse signal coverage must reach 95 percent of the viewers who now get ATSC 1.0 service. That will be hard to do in places where a statewide network has a different set of transmitter locations and coverage areas that may not closely overlap individual local commercial TV markets.

“The FCC is weighing these things and is looking at waiver considerations,” he said, but needs more input from stations that might be affected.

Wherever they are in the process, Hand said, “the time to begin planning for 3.0 is now.”

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