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Multicast Clarifications

Circulated ATSC 3.0 Order Has No Defined Sunset Dates

The FCC draft ATSC 3.0 report and order circulated to 10th-floor offices would extend the substantially similar and A/322 physical layer requirements indefinitely (see 2303030064), grant NAB requests on multicast hosting in part, and doesn’t take up the matter of a 3.0 task force, FCC and broadcast industry officials told us. The item is expected to lead to a lot of lobbying from industry and negotiating among commissioners, and isn’t expected to be voted soon, industry and FCC officials told us.

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Not having a defined sunset date for the substantially similar requirement would be a blow to the 3.0 transition, said BitPath CEO John Hane in an interview. “We need to be able to do long-term planning,” Hane said. The physical layer requirement had been set to sunset last week, but that was temporarily delayed, and without FCC action the requirement that broadcaster 3.0 and 1.0 feeds be substantially similar would sunset this summer.

Industry officials said the chairwoman’s office could be pressured to make changes to the draft before the item is voted. Commissioner Geoffrey Starks recently has been a vocal proponent of ATSC 3.0, raising privacy concerns at the America’s Public Television Summit (see 2302280070) but touting its potential to democratize high-quality content. Commissioners Nathan Simington and Brendan Carr are considered supporters. Carr said last month that “regulatory roadblocks” to the transition should be removed (see 2302100062).

The substantially similar requirement means capacity in most markets is insufficient for broadcasters to deliver all the advantages of 3.0, which hurts broadcasters' ability to create demand in consumers for the new standard and the new TVs it requires, said Hane. “The clunky simulcast deployment regime needs a shot in the arm to provide the public with access to the exceptional 3.0 services being warehoused because broadcasters can’t get access to their full 3.0 capacity,” said One Media’s Jerald Fritz. Concerns that dropping the requirement would lead to broadcasters abruptly switching to 3.0 and marooning their customers aren’t founded, he said. If the requirement were to sunset, “nothing would change in six months,” Hane said, but eventually, some stations would begin experimenting with 3.0's higher quality sound and visuals on some of their non-top four feeds. This would give consumers a reason to purchase 3.0-compatible televisions, he said.

There is a four-year track record” of no credible complaints from MVPDs and broadcasters including smaller groups and public television stations in the transition, Hane said. “To the extent stations have sought rule waivers it was to preserve multicasts and primary coverage the rules would have perversely forced the stations to drop without a waiver, or to allow public broadcasters to participate,” he said. Allowing the requirement to sunset would give broadcasters the flexibility to transition each market in a way that preserves the most viewers. Without it, limited capacity could leave some stations out of the transition, Hane said. “When the rules are restrictive, it doesn’t mean there are no tradeoffs, it just means we can’t make the best tradeoffs,” he said. “We need to get past simulcasting, sunset 1.0 carriage and free the technology to provide these delayed consumer benefits,” said Fritz.

The draft item does clarify the agency’s position on hosting multicast streams in markets transitioning to 3.0, and largely is in line with NAB’s requests, industry officials said (see 2302020075). The draft would clarify rules for 3.0 simulcasting to allow arrangements where a single broadcaster’s multicast, secondary programming streams are divided among multiple hosting stations and clearing up what station is responsible for any FCC violations when one station is hosting the multicast stream of others. The draft wouldn’t allow the NAB-requested lateral hosting, where a station broadcasting in 1.0 hosts some multicast channels on another 1.0 station in the market during a transition to 3.0, industry officials said.

The draft is silent on NAB’s proposal for an ATSC 3.0 task force, but that’s not necessarily a barrier to that proposal, industry officials said. The agency could act on the task force proposal separately from the 3.0 sunset order, and the order wasn’t expected to include the creation of a task force, industry officials said. An ATSC task force would provide “a meaningful impetus” to the transition, Fritz said.

The draft order would also indefinitely extend the A/322 physical layer requirement, FCC and industry officials said. Broadcasters aren’t ready for that requirement to end but would still prefer a date certain over an indefinite extension, industry officials said.