FCC Approves Next Generation TV ATSC 3.0 Standards

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Xiaotong Zhou
Staff Writer

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved use of ATSC 3.0, a new technological standard that will improve picture and audio quality of cable TV content, while allowing viewers to stream the same content on mobile devices. However, adopting the new standard also raises the concern of additional costs by adapting new techniques and privacy by allowing advertisers to access data of individuals’ viewing habits.

As people demand to watch nearly anything on any device whenever they want, the broadcast industry evolves to accommodate this desire. ATSC 3.0 is the standards “using advanced transmission and video/audio coding techniques to bring new and creative services to viewers,” according to a post on ATSC’s website.

Besides 4K Ultra HD and high picture quality, “over-the-Air next-gen TV signals will be re-transmitted within your home to WiFi-enabled devices like tablets, smartphones, set-top-boxes, and even Smart TVs,” and “offer an efficient way to deliver data and content to moving vehicles,” according to a blog post from Tablo.

According to a statement by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Next Gen TV will be a “voluntary market driven transition,” meaning that broadcasters are permitted, but not required, to transmit ATSC 3.0 signals as long as they continue to provide existing channels to consumers.

Pai views this action as a critical milestone for broadcasters to compete with cable companies in today’s digital market and other platforms such as online streaming services. The Next Gen TV standards “open the door to substantially improved, free over-the-air broadcast television service and fiercer competition in the video marketplace,” according to Pai’s statement.

The need for broadcasters to gain a competitive edge is obvious as more audiences are cancelling traditional pay-TV service. Over 22 million adults have cut the cord, a 33.2 percent increase so far in 2017, according to an eMarketer study.

The audience is shifting away from pay-TV to digital video subscriptions like Netflix and Hulu, the study estimates. “This year, 176.4 million US adult internet users will stream or download video content at least once a month and that number is expected to increase to 190.2 million by the end of 2020,” researchers wrote.

By guaranteeing mobile viewing capabilities and better accessibility features, this “next generation” of TV actually fits into younger generations’ lifestyles and behaviors.

However, this authorization is the center of controversy within the FCC, as told by the 3:2 vote. The FCC stipulates that no more than three commissioners can belong to the same political party, and only the three Republican members voted for the authorization, while two Democrats dissented.

Even though the standards aren’t forced, it will increase viewers’ burden on the cost. Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the Democratic members of the FCC, noted in a speech that “in the near term, with the standard voluntary, the cost of implementing it will be added to consumers cable and satellite bills. In the longer term, it means everyone needs to buy a new television.”

Mignon Clyburn, the other Democratic FCC commissioner, criticized the FCC’s action, saying that it will create a digital divide. Broadcasters may create “two different tiers of television,” she said.

The lack of compatibility of ATSC 3.0 with ATSC 1.0 means consumers’ existing TVs and cable equipment “will not be able to receive a next gen signal,” leaving low-income consumers in a compromising situation. Greater protections for consumers are warranted.

Some public interest groups also raised questions about privacy concerns with the move to ATSC 3.0. Allowing the broadcast giants to track customers’ data will stir fear of privacy violation and concentrate power among a small handful of corporations, some say.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, told Variety that the new standard “will not magically allow your TV to tell broadcasters demographic information about you to show better ads. That’s nonsense.”

The Next Gen standard will allow stations to “show you advertisements more likely to fit your interests,” Wharton said.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told The Washington Post, “The FCC has placed Americans who watch TV and online video at grave risk when it comes to their privacy.”

This action will also be a net neutrality issue. Net neutrality is the basic principle that prohibits internet service providers from treating content or websites differently. Once broadcasters gain knowledge of consumers’ preferences, they will provide certain content to accommodate, such as ads, which violates the principle rule of net neutrality.

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