NextGen TV digital broadcasting capabilities are expected to be available, at least in a technical sense, to 75% of U.S. households by the end of this year, according to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
Upgraded digital-standard ATSC 3.0 signals are now broadcasting in 60 U.S. television markets. Dallas-Fort Worth is the largest market. Recent expansions have included four stations in Miami and six in Boston.
However, infrastructure and other challenges have slowed implementation of 3.0 by broadcasters. That, along with growing competition from virtual multichannel streaming video providers, could derail NextGen’s progress, NAB warned in a late-January filing with the Federal Communications Commission.
NAB asked FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel to establish an ATSC 3.0 task force focused on making the transition as rapid as possible, ensuring that viewers have access to free, local television signals at all stages of the transition. Earlier this month, NAB met with Rosenworcel to offer a suggested timetable for task force initiatives.
NAB and its members maintain that NextGen is crucial to broadcasters’ ability to compete and continue to provide consumers with “free, local, trusted” service.
In a letter to Rosenworcel in mid February, NAB Deputy General Counsel Patrick McFadden said that while broadcasters have made impressive progress in a short time under challenging conditions — including a lack of additional spectrum — failure to push forward via a task force could result in NextGen devolving into a “second-class, eventually uncompetitive service.” The FCC should “make this transition the top priority — rather than merely one issue among many — for a dedicated team of FCC staff,” he argued.
The task force proposal calls for setting deadlines of between six and 12 months for various key initiatives, including establishing a mandatory cutoff period for broadcasters to move to ATSC 3.0, authorizing use of ATSC 3.0 compression standards to allow broadcasters to use freed-up radio spectrum for other purposes, and encouraging development and sales of consumer TVs and devices that include ATSC 3.0 tuners.
The federal government required television stations to switch from analog signals to digital signals a decade ago, but stations have not been required to upgrade from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0.
Large television-owning media companies including Nexstar, Hearst, TEGNA and Sinclair have invested in the necessary equipment and even cooperated with one another, with long-term paybacks in mind including the audience-building benefits of being able to transmit ultra-high definition (UHD/4K) video signals capable of providing high-quality video and theater-caliber sound, interactive programming and mobile reception. NextGen-equipped smart TVs and other connected devices could also be used for targeted advertising, encrypted pay-TV signals and hyper-local community emergency alerts.
While ATSC 3.0 can technically be transmitted now to TV viewers who currently receive their local network stations via antenna, broadcasters aren’t currently transmitting in 4K. Most are simulcasting their current high-definition signals to a few stations in key markets, as they await levels of ownership of NextGen-enabled TV sets (or perhaps upgraded set-top boxes) to reach levels sufficient to justify rolling out the more advanced capabilities.
Last year, Sinclair President and Chief Revenue Officer Rob Weisbard estimated that it would likely take another five years for NextGen-enabled TVs to reach sufficient saturation in the consumer marketplace.