The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has secured some powerful support for its push to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help accelerate the rollout of the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcasting standard, aka NextGen TV.
Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel urging the agency to take an active role in expediting the adoption of the standard.
The letter, written by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and co-signed by 26 other senators, argues that NextGen is “essential to the continued vitality and competitiveness of local television broadcasters’ free, local, and trusted service in our communities” and a “pro-consumer, innovative technology [that] will allow local stations to better serve their viewers with improved pictures and sound, interactive features, including expanded local news, advanced emergency alerting, and the ability to deliver to viewers the content that is most relevant to them, when they want it, where they want it.”
NextGen could also be used for targeted advertising, and is considered critical to local broadcasters’ ability to compete for advertising, as well as popular programming that can help build and maintain audiences.
The new show of political backing follows an NAB letter sent to Rosenworcel in February, proposing that the FCC establish a dedicated task force that would set 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.
And these are just the latest lobbying efforts, which began seven years ago with a joint petition to the FCC from broadcasters and the consumer electronics industry asking the agency to start a voluntary transition to the new standard.
Since then, the senators’ letter points out, “major marketplace advancements have been made. Already, more than 60% of Americans have access to Next Gen TV. And, while local markets continue to launch every month, many outstanding markets face challenges like capital and spectrum constraints, particularly in rural and urban markets, respectively. At the same time, the video marketplace has evolved, and it is now a competitive imperative for video platforms to deliver ultra-high-definition (4K) programming. If broadcasters cannot compete for high-value, 4K sports programming for example, and it instead flows to tech platforms, broadcasters’ proven, decades-long investment in local news content will be undermined and, most important, viewers will lose a competitive option that is available for free over the air.”
Noting that the FCC has successfully championed other innovative technologies like 5G, Wi-Fi, and the 2009 digital TV transition, the letter asks the agency to take an active role in addressing the “complex but imminently solvable” issues involved in the transition from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0, “including working with Congress, public broadcasters, and industry to ensure consumers with legacy TVs are not harmed by any changes.”
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 will likely take another five years for NextGen-enabled TVs to reach sufficient saturation in the consumer marketplace.