Wireless Future Project and Consumers Union Joint Statement on FCC’s Next Generation TV Order

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Last night the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) circulated a draft Order that authorizes the transition to a new broadcast television standard, known as ATSC 3.0. The FCC is set to vote on the Order at its monthly meeting on Nov. 16. The transition to so-called Next Gen TV raises substantial consumer issues, including whether and when consumers will be forced to purchase a new TV set or cable set-top box in order to view their local TV stations over the air.

ATSC 3.0 is not backward compatible and so, like the analog-to-DTV transition that ended just eight years ago (2009), a simulcast requirement will be critical to ensuring households do not lose access to local news, weather, emergency alerts and other public interest content that stations are required to transmit in exchange for billions of dollars in free spectrum rights. And although the broadcast industry proposed a transition that will be “voluntary” for all parties, the cost of implementing ATSC 3.0 could be added to the cable and satellite bills of the majority of consumers who rely on pay TV services.

The new technology has potential benefits for consumers, including immersive audio, ultra high definition picture, enhanced emergency alerts, and the delivery of the ATSC 3.0 signal to mobile devices. However, the FCC must ensure potential benefits are a reality before authorizing broadcasters to turn off the current DTV signals (ATSC 1.0). Some broadcasters are even seeking additional free spectrum to make the transition less costly to stations.

The following quote can be attributed to Michael Calabrese, Director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute:

“Like the 2009 DTV transition, when Congress protected consumers, we are relieved to see the FCC’s proposed order will ensure that households relying on over-the-air reception will continue to receive most local stations on their existing DTV sets for an indefinite period.

“Consumer advocates are concerned, however, that the FCC is not proposing to constrain the ability of powerful broadcast groups to force Next Gen TV services onto cable and satellite systems. This is likely to raise prices for cable customers by a large but unknown amount and only serves to pad the pockets of broadcasters at consumers’ expense.

“It is troubling that the Sinclair Broadcast Group benefits more than anyone from FCC approval of ATSC 3.0 as proposed, thanks to patent royalties and the leverage it gives them to demand higher retransmission consent fees that cable companies pass along to consumers.”

The following quote can be attributed to Jonathan Schwantes, Senior Policy Counsel at Consumers Union:

"Broadcasters are quick to highlight the consumer benefits of Next Gen TV, like improved picture quality, enhanced emergency alerts, and delivery to mobile devices. But the proposed transition to ATSC 3.0 also has the potential to burden consumers and stick them with higher costs.

“No television in America today can currently receive an ATSC 3.0 television signal over-the-air. Those who are able to upgrade their hardware can choose to, but no consumer should lose their service due to this transition. We’re pleased the Commission recognized some of these signal disruption concerns, and will require on-air notifications to inform and educate consumers of this transition to minimize disruptions, as we recommended.  While we are encouraged by the Order, concerns remain that consumers could face higher fees from cable providers passing on the cost of the new signal in the future. We urge the FCC to put consumers first as they move forward on this transition, and work to ensure that consumers aren’t left paying the price for this transition.”

The Wireless Future Project filed initial comments and reply comments at the FCC with Consumers Union and Public Knowledge that explained in detail the several consumer issues at play in the transition to the new broadcast transmission standard.