FCC KEYNOTE: The Need for Speed on the Road to ATSC 3.0

In his keynote address at the Midwest Next Gen TV Summit in Columbus, Ohio in late June, the Honorable Michael O’Rielly provided his policy and marketplace insights about ATSC 3.0. Following are excerpts from the FCC Commissioner’s remarks to the more than 125 broadcasters from Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin in attendance.

By: MICHAEL O’RIELLY

The central focus of the Midwest Summit is Next-Gen TV, as enabled by the new broadcast standard, ATSC 3.0.

The Federal Communications Commission set the stage for deployment of the new standard through a Report and Order and Further Notice last November. At the time, I made it clear that the success or failure of the new technology is dependent on two things. First, it will require sufficient interest by broadcasters willing to make a bet on the future of television and the capabilities that the standard may allow. Second, it will require great interest by consumers to adapt and adopt the new features and functions that may soon be available. These are both achievable but not without tremendous effort.

Impressive ATSC 3.0 Progress in Phoenix, Arizona

As many of you know, I traveled to Phoenix in May to examine in person the amazing progress that has been made to install, test, and deploy the new television standard. Of the seven test markets initiated by advocates of the new standard, I selected Phoenix because it is centered on consumer-leaning capabilities, which remain of high interest to me and the Commission.

Moreover, I wanted to get there early, before all of the bugs were completely resolved, so I could understand the trials and tribulations that come with transitioning to a new standard. Suffice it to say, during my visit, I witnessed very few, if any, problems. That’s not disappointment in my voice; color me impressed.

While in Phoenix, I witnessed the wonderful collaboration of broadcasters, led by Pearl TV and their executive director, the indelible Anne Schelle. It was somewhat surprising and refreshing to see such a unified team, with stations that typically fight it out on the national and local stage on a daily basis working together for a common cause.

In my experience, broadcasters have tended to resemble an old school Irish family, in which no one fought better together, and no one fought more frequently with each other. The constant internal fights on policies and practices that occur within the broadcasting family seem to have been set aside in Phoenix so that ATSC 3.0 would be made operational and everyone, including the Commission, could learn from the experience.

Of course, broadcasters were not the only ones working together in Phoenix. There was a strong partnership of equipment providers, including TV manufacturers LG, Sony and Samsung, as well as audio support by Dolby. On that note, you should really take the opportunity to explore the audio opportunities for consumers available under the new standard. In my humble opinion, they seem like real game changers. They include the ability to compress audio signals, eliminate background noise, and switch languages on the fly. Those are just the type of features I believe consumers have been seeking.

While I didn’t make it up the Swilling Mountains to see the unified stick, I saw the results of the so-called “Lighthouse” approach, where one broadcast station housed multiple television station signals and operated from one transmission tower. We also drove around town while receiving a live mobile television signal that experienced only one hiccup while driving under an underpass. And we saw the critical, advanced emergency alerting –weather information that can be made available to viewers on a moment’s notice.

Depending on your viewpoint, the advertising insertion capability also was intriguing. As a television viewer, I would appreciate the opportunity to receive targeted ads for items or services of interest, rather than learning of the latest adult diaper or luxury boat sale.

Finally, we saw the improved picture quality that is commonly referred to when one mentions the new standard, as well as an enhanced TV guide. I can’t guarantee that consumers will be interested in these features, but I can tell you that, for my part, I certainly was impressed.

Next Gen [Public] TV in East Lansing, Michigan

As a follow-up to seeing the consumer-centric commercial station approach, I had the distinct pleasure in June of visiting the public broadcasting station test market at WKAR on the campus of Michigan State University. It is important to note that while commercial stations may confront a number of difficulties effectuating Next-Gen TV, public broadcasting likely faces an added layer of challenges given their unique structure and financial issues.

I plan to discuss the repack in a bit, but consider that WKAR was the first public broadcasting station to navigate and complete the repack. In the process, it had to replace the main studio antenna, transmitter, transmission line, and auxiliary antenna, and do so without a corporate sponsor underwriting the added spending. That’s quite an accomplishment.

From the outset, let me thank WKAR and their General Manager Susi Elkins for allowing me to drop by to see the facilities, meet with so many committed people and learn about all the things happening at the station. It’s a first-rate organization with so much community participation and buy-in. There is just a certain level of energy brewing in the air from all the adults, students, and children reached by the station.

The primary reason I went to WKAR was to explore what WKAR and public broadcasting stations plan to do under the new broadcasting standard. I was actually able to break a little news, as the Commission had just granted the station an experimental license to initiate ATSC 3.0 set-up and broadcasting. WKAR has set aside space on the Michigan State campus, to be known as the “NextGen MI Lab,” with a particular focus on public media content, such as education, health, local news and emergency alerting. And, the lab will examine new areas for such broadcasting as it relates to connected and autonomous vehicles.

As I understand it, the lab, which will be operational late this year, will work with 25 noncommercial licensees of all shapes and sizes, covering almost 200 million Americans. Moreover, the lab is designed to capitalize and complement the extensive work of WKAR, PBS Kids, Michigan State, and the local school districts to improve elementary math and literacy. That is quite an ambitious agenda, and I look forward to returning to East Lansing for an update once the lab is up and running.

Television Spectrum Repack Process

I realize that most of the television broadcasting industry is in the middle of a spectrum repack in one form or another. That makes things a bit complicated. Affected broadcasters and the FCC are methodically working through the 10 phases of the repack. Most experts are not anticipating huge problems until at least Phase 3, but I’m interested to know exactly what experiences stations are having with the repack and what issues may be on the horizon. For instance, I am certainly aware of the tower crew issue. I was one of the first people to raise the issue years ago when everyone looked at me funny for suggesting there may not be sufficient crews to install new towers and antennas or relocate stations to other towers within a market.

Thankfully, the largest winning bidder in the incentive auction, T-Mobile, has also been actively trying to solve potential obstacles to repacking. They have primed the pump on tower crews, jumped ahead in Puerto Rico, and are turning to new markets on a weekly basis. In some regards, they have been doing some heavy lifting that has taken problems off the Commission’s plate. Hopefully, others will follow their lead, but we will just have to see.

Fortunately, thanks to Congressional action, we now know that the commitment to hold broadcasters harmless throughout the repack process is a reality. With the additional $1 billion Congress allocated for this purpose, including $50 million for affected radio stations, broadcasters are in a much better position to relocate their systems without facing uncompensated expenses.

Next Steps – the Need for Speed

The beauty of the FCC’s Next Gen TV actions is that ATSC 3.0 can progress as consumers and the individual television markets are ready for it. Seeing the Phoenix consumer focused approach and the WKAR public broadcasting effort in action was very helpful. And there will be more trials and errors in the coming months.

As I mentioned at the 2018 ATSC Next Gen TV Conference in Washington, if I had one concern, it would be that the entire process is going to take some time. Unfortunately, television broadcasters are under enormous pressures right now. The high-tech companies, who broadcasters compete with daily for advertising and consumer attention, are not going to stop and wait for ATSC 3.0 to be fully deployed. They are going to continue to eat market share and advertising share.

I’ve told the story before of a very small, rural radio station who came to see me recently and provided an interesting data point: a local car dealer told them that they used to get five to six pitches on average for advertising. By last count, they had 84 different entities seeking to carry their advertising. So, time is not necessarily a luxury you all have. If you are a broadcaster sitting on the fence on whether to implement ATSC 3.0, you should be worried that the fence may no longer exist if you take too long to decide.