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6 September 2022

Broadcasters blame FCC for delays to US NextGen TV roll-out

There have been many delays to deployment of the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast technology in the USA, despite progress in other markets such as India or Brazil, often with a mobile-centric approach. The hybrid broadcast/broadband standard, also known as NextGen TV, is promoted by supporters as a route to efficient use of spectrum and infrastructure by both mobile and TV operators, as well as a way to encourage multi-device services.

In the USA, the FCC appears to have run out of patience, as it seeks answers to why broadcasters are currently licensed to provide ATSC 3.0 services in 54 markets, as of mid-2022, when the target was 61 markets by the end of 2020.

Last week, Rethink hosted a webinar on ATSC 3.0 technologies, which also covered the Brazil-originated SBTVD 3.0 (Sistema Brasileiro de TV Digital). ATSC’s Skip Pizzi – who is currently chair of the IT-5 Brazil Implementation Team for SBTVD 3.0 – returned fire at the FCC, describing the US regulator as the “real problem” behind slower-than-expected roll-outs (and consumer uptake) of NextGen TV.

One reason for the delays are that ATSC 3.0 is unlike previous terrestrial TV transitions, such as the switchover from analog to digital, because there is no FCC-mandated roadmap with a full schedule and new spectrum allocation. ATSC 3.0 is a completely voluntary transition with no new spectrum allocation.

When switching from analog TV, broadcasters in the USA were given new digital TV channels which many ran for the best part of a decade in parallel with existing analog channels, before finally shutting off the analog taps and keeping digital channels running.

The FCC then took away the excess spectrum and auctioned this off to the wireless industry, with broadcasters losing swathes of spectrum first in the 700 MHz band and then 600 MHz nearly a decade later in 2017.

With TV spectrum being packed tighter and tighter, there is no new spectrum to allow a convenient switchover to ATSC 3.0 with simulcasting of channels, without going through “heroic efforts on our own as broadcasters”, according to Pizzi. “That’s what’s taken so long,” he said.

And because broadcasters in the USA are used to owning their own transmission systems (not counting shared towers and combiners), unlike in Europe where shared transmissions are common, this meant the country had to come up with a “crazy quilt method” of sharing channel spectrum in the market, as Pizzi put it.

If five broadcasters got together, for example, one would switch to ATSC 3.0 and carry the other broadcasters’ signals, as the new standard is far more efficient, using HEVC instead of MPEG-2 video. This would bring about 5x efficiency improvement over ATSC 1.0, according to Pizzi. “That is easy to do,” he said.

However, the complication is that the ATSC 1.0 signals in the channel that is now carrying ATSC 3.0 service are spread across the other four remaining 1.0 channels, carried by the other four broadcasters. Because of the multicasting used in the US market, this hypothetical (but realistic) scenario would require changes in FCC rules to allow the kind of channel sharing to take place that would be necessary. As a result, it takes a laborious process of negotiation with the FCC, which the US broadcasters are not used to doing. “It’s a behavioral as well as a technological shift – and that’s really what’s behind the delays,” concluded Pizzi.