FCC resolves ‘big regulatory hurdles’ to public TV’s ATSC 3.0 rollout

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Public TV stations hoping to migrate to the new ATSC 3.0 digital transmission standard may have an easier path now that the FCC has approved a rulemaking that will ease the granting of waivers to its simulcast requirements. 

Because the ATSC 3.0 standard is incompatible with the tens of millions of existing digital TVs designed for the existing ATSC 1.0 standard, the FCC has required stations to pair up with simulcast partners. While one of the partners’ transmitters carries multiple ATSC 3.0 services, another transmitter must serve as a “lighthouse” to carry the same programming from multiple stations in ATSC 1.0, continuing to make it available to consumers who haven’t yet upgraded to ATSC 3.0 reception. 

While that matchmaking process is relatively straightforward in most urban markets, America’s Public Television Stations has long been warning the FCC that it will be impossible in some areas pubcasters serve. In northern Minnesota, for example, Bemidji’s KAWE is the only full-power TV signal in its region, with no commercial station for pairing.

In states served by statewide public TV networks, transmitters often don’t evenly overlap with commercial stations’ markets. In Demopolis, Ala., for instance, Alabama Public Television’s WIIQ overlaps no more than 30% of any commercial station’s signal, said Lonna Thompson, APTS executive VP/COO and general counsel. 

APTS had asked the FCC for a blanket waiver allowing any public TV station to automatically be exempted from the simulcast requirements. The commission instead chose to require stations to make individual waiver requests. However, the Report and Order it issued Tuesday sets out a standard that presumes a waiver should be granted if there are three or fewer full-power TV stations in the public TV station’s designated market area that can fully cover its community of license. The commission also promised to move quickly on those waiver requests, generally acting within 60 business days. 

“We seek to provide such stations with greater flexibility to deploy ATSC 3.0 service, provided they take steps to protect their viewers from the potential loss of ATSC 1.0 service resulting from a waiver,” the commission wrote in its Report and Order. 

“It is a generous and fair waiver request that will serve well for public TV stations,” Thompson said of the FCC’s three-signal presumption.

In other areas with more signals where a simulcast partner still can’t be found, the commission said it will consider a waiver request if a public TV station can show that it’s still working to ensure its signal remains available to viewers, perhaps through providing free or low-cost ATSC 3.0 converters upon request. 

The FCC denied another request from APTS to allow stations in certain uncrowded markets to light up their own second signals with ATSC 3.0 using otherwise vacant channels in the repacked UHF spectrum. That proposal drew strong objections from Microsoft and other technology companies that have their own designs on using such vacant spectrum for unlicensed data transmission. 

“We pointed out there are lots of other bands available being used for unlicensed devices, but the commission didn’t grant that request,” Thompson said. 

In any event, the costs associated with building out complete new duplicate transmission chains for dual 1.0/3.0 operation meant that few stations would have taken advantage of that option if the FCC had permitted it, Thompson said. 

Pandemic could slow adoption

With the simulcast waivers settled and the vacant UHF spectrum request denied, Thompson said the last of the big regulatory hurdles to public TV’s ATSC 3.0 rollout have now been cleared. The release of the latest FCC Report and Order also means the end, for now, of ongoing wrangling between public TV and cable industry groups, who have been frequent regulatory opponents.

Cable companies “are concerned about having to carry our stations in 3.0,” Thompson said. “It will take some equipment changes, though I’m told the equipment changes are not significant and don’t represent a ton of money. Anything that moves toward moving forward the [3.0] transition, quite frankly, cable has opposed.”

Even with a green light from the FCC to move forward on more ATSC 3.0 conversions, the real-world circumstances of 2020 may put a damper on the new technology. A handful of public TV stations are involved in early ATSC 3.0 tests in markets such as Phoenix and San Francisco. In Portland, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s KOPB is serving as an ATSC 1.0 lighthouse as part of a project involving several commercial stations in its market. But in other areas, the expense of an ATSC 3.0 conversion may be a cost that wary public broadcasters could decide to wait on. 

“Our stations are already suffering from a loss of private donations and a potential loss of state funding as the economic downturn really takes hold, so these are issues we’re going to have to deal with,” said APTS CEO Patrick Butler. “They may indeed slow the process down a bit.”

At stations already working toward ATSC 3.0 conversions, Thompson said some aspects, such as negotiating simulcast agreements and planning future engineering work, were able to continue even as the pandemic closed offices and slowed down operations. But other pieces of the puzzle, including on-site tower and antenna work, have been hindered by limited availability of crews. 

“A lot of those restrictions have been lifted now, and those items are moving forward as well,” Thompson said.

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