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Six Months In

DRM Is Early Point of Disagreement for ATSC 3.0 Task Force

Nearly six months into a yearlong effort, members of NAB-led, FCC-involved ATSC 3.0 task force on the Future of TV Initiative (FTI) (see 2306090043) told us it will likely shift to delving into specific issues after spending early meetings covering 3.0 basics. Digital rights management (DRM) and encryption for ATSC 3.0 signals have become an early point of disagreement at working group meetings, but participants we spoke with said the process was largely collegial and praised the task force's diversity. “If we don’t have any tough conversations, we’re not doing it right,” said NAB Associate General Counsel Patrick McFadden, who oversees the task force.

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The task force’s first meeting was June 12 at NAB headquarters in Washington, D.C. While that was a meeting of the whole body, subsequent monthly sessions were divided into working groups and occurred largely as teleconferences. More in-person meetings are planned, broadcast industry officials told us. The three working groups are Backward Compatibility, Completing the Transition and Post-Transition Regulation. Each includes broadcasters, MVPDs, consumer electronics companies, FCC officials and consumer and public interest groups. The meetings are closed to journalists, and members aren't supposed to discuss specifics with the press, several FTI participants told us.

So far, meetings have largely been “high-level” because many of the task force’s participants come from consumer groups and nonbroadcast industries and had to be brought up to speed on tech, said ATBA CEO and FTI member Lee Miller. Many participants weren’t familiar with all of 3.0's capabilities, specifics of sharing arrangements used in the transition, and how 3.0 works, broadcast industry officials said. McFadden told us that his sense is that working groups will start tackling more specific issues and problems around the standard, which he called “bite-size chunks,” with an eye toward recommendations the FTI is planned to release in June.

Several members confirmed that early sticking points among the various sides at meetings are ATSC 3.0 content copyright protection and encryption. A petition and online campaigns urge comment submissions. Encryption affects consumer electronics firms on the task force and has long been a focal point for groups such as FTI participant Public Knowledge. PK didn’t comment. Despite pausing building 3.0 devices, LG has remained on the task force and is widely expected to return to the 3.0 market once its litigation is resolved.

DRM is an issue that has come up in our initial meetings," McFadden wrote in an email. “We do think that the amount of time spent on the issue is probably disproportionate to its significance at this point in the process, both because consumers continue to receive ATSC 1.0 signals and because the device marketplace is developing rapidly,” McFadden said. Critics of encryption on 3.0 have argued that broadcast TV must be receivable by all consumers and that it's being used to squeeze some consumer electronics manufacturers. “There’s no disagreement that it’s an issue that eventually needs to get worked out before we get to the end of the transition, but we’re not there yet.” McFadden said the issue will be overtaken by events as more devices become available.

Another recent ATSC 3.0 hiccup -- LG pausing building 3.0 devices due to patent litigation -- has not become a focus of the Future of TV initiative, partly due to FCC ex parte rules, multiple participants told us. The agency has an open proceeding on 3.0 patents and every working group has FCC members so the issue can’t be discussed at task force meetings without ex parte filings, industry officials told us. Multiple participants told us FCC officials on the task force are largely in listening mode, gathering information rather than indicating the agency’s direction on 3.0. The FCC didn’t comment.

Most participants we spoke with were satisfied with the speed and scope of the process. “I’m happy with it from a broadcast perspective,” said Miller. “The meetings have been robust and thorough and it is impressive to see how deep and deliberate the dive has been on so many details needed for a smooth transition,” said Bill Christian, CEO of TV broadcaster Vision Communications. NAB Chief Legal Officer Rick Kaplan said the task force is valuable for getting groups and entities thinking about 3.0 that previously weren’t. “There’s no question there will be disagreements, but all the issues are out there, everyone’s engaged,” Kaplan said. That should advance discussions of 3.0 for future rules debates around matters like the 2027 sunset of the requirement that broadcaster 1.0 and 3.0 programming streams must be substantially similar, Kaplan said. “If the answers were simple, there wouldn't be a need for the committee,” emailed Christian.