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Broadcasters Make Their Bid to Deliver Local TV to Smart Phones

Randy Sukow / Apr 14, 2016

It’s a quaint old idea for most TV viewers today … receiving local signals directly from the stations’ broadcast towers. That idea may be returning with a 21st Century, no-rabbit ears twist as broadcasters petition the FCC to adopt the ATSC 3.0 standard making it possible for viewers to receive digital TV broadcasts directly to their smart phones and other mobile devices.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), America’s Public Television Stations (APTS), the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), and the newly created AWARN Alliance jointly filed the petition asking the commission “to amend its rules to allow broadcasters to use the signaling portion of the physical layer of the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, while they continue to deliver current-generation DTV broadcast service to their communities.”

The Advanced Television Systems Committee, the same broadcast industry coalition that developed the current digital broadcast TV standard, recently completed standardization of ATSC 3.0. Along with supporting transmission to mobile devices, the new standard upgrades digital TV resolution to 4K ultra high-definition quality and adds other features, such as “datacasting that will offer a new broadband data pipe into the home, thereby giving content providers another means for distributing large video and other digital files to consumers,” according to the petition.

ATSC 3.0 also would support advanced emergency alerting technology.  The AWARN Alliance of broadcasters formed to promote new such technologies, including multilingual and geo-targeted alerts.

The petition specifically asks for permission to begin broadcasting ATSC 3.0 while simultaneously transmitting the current-generation standard because the two standards are not backwardly compatible. Current TV sets will not receive ATSC 3.0 signals over the air. Broadcasters will, however, be able to transmit both standards side-by-side and eventually retire the current digital standard once there is a critical mass of ATSC 3.0 home sets and mobile devices in consumer hands.

It was less than a decade ago that American broadcasters made the transition to the current digital TV standard. All transmissions in the former analog standard gradually ended over several months in 2009. Those who had not yet purchased digital TVs continued viewing local signals by either buying an inexpensive signal converter or subscribing to cable or satellite TV services that continued to pass through analog signals. The ability to simulcast both standards will help broadcasters make a smoother transition to ATSC 3.0.

However, simulcasting both standards will require broadcasters to use a full 6 MHz allotment. Some broadcasters have opted to participate in the FCC’s incentive auction in which they give up half of their allotments in return for part of the auction revenue.  The petition, therefore, asks that the FCC allow broadcasters to make the transition to ATSC 3.0 on a “voluntary basis” without setting a date for all broadcasters to begin ATSC 3.0 transmission exclusively.

FCC acceptance of the ATSC 3.0 standard could serve as a disincentive for broadcasters to participate in future incentive auctions. The technology also might be part of the reason why companies seeking to provide “thin-bundle” video services to mobile users have found it difficult to nail down retransmission rights for local signals. Many broadcasters hope to be serving that market themselves.


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