Next TV Standard Must Be Truly Universal
The engineers who worked heroically to push broadcasting across the digital threshold had barely caught up on their sleep before agitation for more change began to erupt. The National Broadband Plan concluded that the amount of over-the-air viewing doesn't justify the number of television stations, and that the FCC could use incentive auctions to re-pack broadcasting into a smaller band of spectrum. Now incentive auctions are the law. This decade we will likely see more broadcast spectrum repurposed for mobile services and another "transition" as hundreds of broadcasters conform their facilities.
So what's the connection between incentive auctions and talk of a new technical standard? The FCC thinks we need more spectrum for mobile services — in large part because of rising use of video on mobile devices. But the FCC's rules dictate a broadcast television technical standard that means much of the most popular video — which is already available free-to-air — can't be received by mobile devices.
The FCC is right that spectrum best suited for mobile services should be useful for mobile services. So why stop with the highest frequency TV channels? If we're going to do all the work of another transition, why not open a path for consumers to access the entire TV band with mobile devices? Many of the same forward-looking broadcasters that championed 8-VSB are working with others on a new standard that incorporates next-generation transmission technologies, as an article in TVNewsCheck reported earlier today. ATSC 3.0 would be easily accessible on mobile devices and provide a much better indoor viewing experience too. And it will be ready to deploy when incentive auction repacking takes place.
But will every broadcaster want to upgrade at the same time? And what about consumers? FCC rules require all broadcasters to use the same digital standard to ensure universality — so every television can receive every broadcast signal. But not everybody thinks that's the best policy. Back in the 1990s the FCC itself debated whether it should select one standard, approve several standards or simply let the market work things out. It adopted the ATSC standard, but it also asked whether the requirement to use that standard should sunset after critical mass of deployment was reached.
Nobody wants a television Babel. But what does universal access mean when people increasingly consume their video on-the-move and on devices that we don't think of as televisions? In my home near downtown Bethesda, Md., pretty close to many of the Washington, D.C. region's television towers, I can reliably receive only three stations, even with an attic-mounted antenna. I can't receive any broadcasts on any of my computers, tablets or other mobile devices.
I love broadcast television, but in my case, it's difficult or impossible to use most of the time. Millions of other Americans either don't use over-the-air television directly, or use it less than they otherwise might, for similar reasons.
As things have turned out, universal use of the first ATSC standard has not fostered universal access to broadcast television today. While all televisions in theory can receive all digital broadcasts, the need for often unwieldy external antennas and fixed installations leads most people to get their television (even their broadcast television) through a different delivery system — usually cable or satellite. And increasingly, people watch video on devices that don't have ATSC television receivers at all — mobile and transportable devices like smartphones, tablets and computers that aren't even tethered by power cords, much less by large, external antennas.
So the government-mandated broadcast standard, which was probably a necessary element of the first transition, hasn't translated into universal access. By today's very high standards, the original ATSC standard is inflexible and, for most consumers, too hard to use. My Android smartphone works everywhere in my house — on the same frequencies broadcasters used to use. I don't even have to think about it.
What if I could buy a 50-inch television, mount it anywhere in my house, and receive dozens of channels on it for free and without any futzing around? What if most or all broadcast signals, in their native form, were easily receivable on tablets and smartphones?
My bet is that OTA usage would grow enormously and become far more "universal". Nobody would distinguish between mobile and "fixed" television because it would be the same service. Networks and program suppliers wouldn't be able to block broadcast stations from replicating their programming on mobile devices because the bitstream could be the same.
Wireless carriers would eagerly include OTA capability in their devices, because the cost would be low, network congestion would be reduced and they could count on a consistent, uniform quality of service indoors and when mobile (wireless carriers get lots of customer support calls when features don't work consistently on devices they deploy).
All of this sounds great but, of course, broadcasters, the government and consumers just spent billions transitioning to ATSC. And who would choose the next standard and manage the next transition? Who would pay for the transition? Wouldn't we just face the same issue again — by the time the next transition is complete, it would be time to upgrade again?