The Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules for the nation’s transition to a NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0) broadcasting platform that further protects legacy ATSC 1.0 transmissions while giving broadcasters more flexibility in maintaining their current sub-channel multi-casts.

The new rules were adopted by the FCC last week to amend a previously established upcoming ATSC 1.0 sunset and to help broadcasters make deals to have other channels in a market carry their existing ATSC 1.0 multi-cast sub-channels. This is in addition to rules that have mandated broadcasters to carry their primary channel service in both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 as they begin their voluntary transition to the new broadcasting standard.

In 2021, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) had asked the FCC to establish new rules for the TV station license framework to make allowances for simulcasting to extend to multi-cast sub-channel streams.

Broadcasters have been looking for more efficient methods of broadcasting some of the many features available by the NextGen TV standard, like 4K UHD with high dynamic range, while preserving all of the services they have been providing under the legacy platform. But some stations have found the transition rules have made it difficult to accomplish this in some markets.

Part of the problem in making the voluntary transition to the new broadcasting platform is that broadcasters are required to maintain service of their ATSC 1.0 stations simultaneously with their new ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV transmissions.

In many markets, this has meant broadcasters have had to share spectrum to maintain their primary channels in both formats, which in some cases limits bandwidth for some or all sub-channels they might have been offering.

Meanwhile, the new voluntary NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0) service is a hybrid IP/OTA system that enables a greater degree of interactivity, along with more targeted advertising, 4K UHD transmission with new 3D surround sound support, emergency alerts, and other advances, using a IP back channel.

But the ATSC 1.0 legacy platform has no such supplementary IP-delivery capability.

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Adoption of the FCC’s new Third Report and Order on NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0), will now “preserve over-the-air (OTA) television viewers’ access to the widest possible range of programming while also supporting television broadcasters’ transition to the next generation of broadcast television technology.”

The Report and Order seeks to facilitate and encourage partnerships intended to minimize potential disruptions by permitting stations in a market to work together to preserve viewers’ access to ATSC 1.0-formatted programming during the transition.

At the same time, the voluntary nature of the ATSC 3.0 transition for broadcasters will continue without mandates, along with an assurance of an eventual end in sight for the requirement to maintain both standards of OTA broadcasting. The new rules extend the sunset date from the previously specified July 17, 2023 to July 17, 2027. The FCC reserves the right to consider a further extension if required in the market.

Meanwhile, new thumb drive-style ATSC 3.0 tuners and set-top boxes are becoming more widely available and at continually lower prices this year. This will help consumers with only legacy ATSC 1.0 tuner-based features (which is most of the country) step up to enjoy forward compatibility with the new channel services coming online.

In addition, TV manufacturers are slowly ramping up availability of new TV models with both forms of digital broadcast turners on board. Look for the “NextGen TV” label on a new TV or external media adapter to ensure the new device will be compatible with the new over-the-air broadcasts into the forseeable future.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) issued a statement of support for the FCC’s rules adoption: “NAB applauds today’s FCC order, which will enable broadcast television innovation,” stated Curtis LeGeyt, NAB President and CEO. “NextGen TV holds the potential to offer tremendous benefits for viewers. To unlock that potential, broadcasters are undergoing a complex and challenging transition. The steps the Commission has taken today – to facilitate the hosting of multicast programming and provide an end date to a rule mandating identical ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 broadcasts – will help make that transition possible. We appreciate the commissioners’ leadership and the hard work of the staff, and we look forward to continuing to work with the FCC to bring the benefits of NextGen TV to viewers.”

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By Greg Tarr

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