5/9 - FCC Comments on Authorization of Next Generation TV (ATSC 3.0)

Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, and the Open Technology Institute (the Public Interest Organizations) are grateful to offer our comments on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that, if approved, would permit broadcasters to voluntarily transition to the new ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard. The consumer issues are many, and we consider them below.

Americans are enjoying video content more than ever before. A report issued last year revealed American adults viewed more than 10 hours of video per day on all sorts of devices: television, tablets, computers, smartphones, DVRs, video games, and more. Despite the diversification of platforms, free over-the-air broadcast television remains a vital player in the video marketplace. Indeed, cord-cutting has increased the popularity of over-the-air broadcasts, as millions of Americans (cord-cutters or not) rely upon these free signals to receive their local broadcast networks.  Moreover, many would agree that a multichannel programming distributor (MVPD) would be hard-pressed to survive without broadcast content retransmitted through its network.

Last year, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the American Public Television Stations (APTS) and others (the Petitioners) petitioned the Federal Communications Commission seeking permission to voluntarily adopt the new over-the-air ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, also known as Next-Gen TV. The Commission’s consideration of that Petition led to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) we are considering today, which, among other things, would authorize the broadcaster’s use of the new ATSC 3.0 standard on a voluntary basis, while still providing consumers the ATSC 1.0 signal they enjoy today over-the-air for free or through their MVPD.

To be sure, Next Gen TV could offer consumers several new benefits that broadcasters are quick to point out: even better than current HD picture quality (up to 4K Ultra-High-Definition or UHD resolution), enhanced emergency alerts that can be delivered with more precision, more targeted advertising (though some consumers may not agree this is a benefit), and delivery of the ATSC 3.0 signal to mobile devices. If realized, the Public Interest Organizations agree that many consumers would enjoy these benefits, provided the cost of acquiring the equipment to receive the signal (e.g., a new television with an ATSC 3.0 tuner or a converter) in the future is not too high. As we often see in the free market, the success or failure of ATSC 3.0 is a gamble; we would argue its success is dependent upon whether consumers are unduly burdened or not. First and foremost, the promised benefits must actually become realized and, for consumers to adopt the technology, these benefits must exceed the costs. Therefore, consumers will play a large role in determining the future of Next Gen TV.

The Public Interest Organizations continue to urge an updating of the public interest obligations prior to the authorization of any licensing authorization to broadcast solely in ATSC 3.0 and, at a minimum, a clear requirement in this proceeding that a free primary video stream must be available in ATSC 3.0 and subject to all current public interest obligations.

Finally, the Public Interest Organizations strongly oppose any consideration of additional, windfall grants of vacant spectrum to any licensee at this time. Along with leading chipmakers and other tech industry stakeholders, our groups have steadfastly maintained that the post-incentive auction band plan must ensure at least three channels of 6 megahertz of unlicensed access in every market nationwide, especially in the most populated metro markets, to enable many emerging unlicensed use cases and the economic. Otherwise, the social and economic benefits that derive from low-band unlicensed spectrum access for broadband connectivity could be lost despite the already enormous investments of time and capital. Once there is certainty of sufficient unlicensed spectrum access nationwide, important benefits including lower barriers of  entry for competition and innovation, and broad adoption of  the already-developed 802.11af standard for Wi-Fi connectivity on mobile devices, as well as machine-to-machine applications (such as remote sensing and monitoring), could thrive with access to spectrum with low-band propagation characteristics.

Download the full text of the comments here.