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Broadcasters Await ATSC 3.0 Multicasting Order

An anticipated FCC order on ATSC 3.0 multicasting is taking longer than expected and may be slowing aspects of the transition to the new standard, broadcast industry officials told us. The Media Bureau has continued to grant requests for special temporary authority as a workaround, but some say that’s not enough. “We have markets backed up where we aren’t going to be able to launch until we have this flexibility,” said John Hane, CEO of 3.0 consortium BitPath.

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The expected order would stem from an NAB petition for declaratory ruling and November Further NPRM and would clarify FCC rules for 3.0 simulcasting, broadcasters said (see 2206150060). Current FCC rules say stations must air their primary programming in both 1.0 and 3.0 but less clear about the rules for multicasting. Broadcasters have sought certainty on how those multicast streams can be hosted and flexibility on the combination of 3.0 and 1.0 streams and who hosts them. MVPD groups such as the American Television Alliance criticized the requested changes as an attempt to get around FCC rules to increase stations' spectrum capacity. ATVA declined to comment “Cable system capacity is limited, and pressure to carry additional multicast streams under one broadcast license could produce further strain,” NCTA said.

Cable companies are asking the FCC​​​​​​​ to impose regulatory burdens on broadcasters because they fear that broadcasters will make available too much over-the-air television to the American public,” said NAB in an ex parte filing Monday. “The Commission cannot take this argument seriously.” NAB proposed that capacity concerns could be addressed by requiring broadcasters to submit a showing after a cable company submits a complaint. “This should be more than sufficient for the Commission, as the cable industry has not put forth a compelling argument that suggests a need for this process in the first place,” NAB said.

Anything to accelerate the deployment of 3.0 will be welcome.” said One Media Executive Vice President-Strategic and Legal Affairs Jerald Fritz. “That includes added hosting flexibility that the Bureau has been providing through STAs and that we hope will become part of the normal application review.” As the effort to convert markets to 3.0 moves to smaller ones, “hosting flexibility will be a key driver in moving a very complex process,” Fritz said.

Stations have limited capacity, so a station in a transitioning market generally acts as a 3.0 “lighthouse” and hosts other stations’ 3.0 streams, but that takes up space that would otherwise have been used to offer multicast stations. Broadcasters told us if they can be flexible about hosting each other’s multicast channels, it becomes easier to arrange market transitions. Without the multicasting order, in some markets it could come down to either giving up transitioning the market or giving up the multicast channels, Hane said. “That’s manifestly contrary to the public interest,” he said.

Broadcasters still believe the order is coming; they’re just not sure when. “I don’t have any information on the Multicast item other than the Staff continues to finalize it,” Fritz emailed. The Media Bureau didn’t comment on the timing of a possible order. “It’s taking longer than hoped,” said Brooks and Pierce broadcast attorney Coe Franklin. Some broadcasters have been critical of the STA process, but Franklin said it gets the job done. BitPath has 45 markets in the U.S., and Fritz said One Media parent Sinclair "has deployed 32 markets already with another 3 on deck."

At least for my clients, the STA process, while not ideal, is still working and not holding up deployment,” Franklin said. "The Bureau is actively reviewing the record and considering options in the proceeding," said an FCC spokesperson Friday. "To date, we have granted 46 STAs related to this issue."