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FCC nod gives way to possibility of ‘Internet’ over broadcast TV signals

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The Federal Communications Commission this week put its support behind an idea to deploy what some are calling “Broadcast Internet” over the new digital television standard ATSC 3.0.

The standard, which updates the current ATSC 1.0 protocol, allows broadcast television station operators to better use licensed spectrum for the deployment of higher-definition signals and more multi-cast digital channels.

The ATSC 3.0 protocol, which supporters have been calling “Next Gen TV,” also allows for datacast services like emergency alerts, community information and weather forecasts, to be sent to ATSC 3.0-capable devices, which could include phones, tablets and computers as well as TV sets. This datacasting has been referred to as “Broadcast Internet,” though it doesn’t operate in the same two-way fashion as traditional Internet.

This week, the FCC said it was supporting a push to update certain rules related to TV station ownership and other matters in an effort to better promote the ATSC 3.0 datacast initiative.

In a commission order, the FCC adopted some proposals that made it easier for those datacast services to be used by non-commercial and educational broadcast stations, which the agency said could help provide educational programming during school bus rides and distance learning programs for remote students.

The agency also said it would allow commercial broadcasters to partner with other services to provide datacasting through ATSC 3.0 without having to pay exorbitant use fees to federal regulators.

At the same time, federal regulators rejected a request by the advocacy group Public Knowledge that it begin collecting ATSC 3.0-related fees, including those for datacasting, in order to fund a program that would allow consumers to purchase ATSC 3.0-compatible converter boxes and other equipment needed to receive the signals. A similar program was offered during the “digital transition” period more than a decade ago when the FCC required broadcasters to switch full-time to digital signals and shut off their analog ones, but the FCC said that wasn’t a concern here because it is currently requiring TV stations to simulcast their signals on ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 “indefinitely.”

It also rejected a request that broadcasters be forced to provide a high-definition (HD) television signal over ATSC 1.0 when it launches an ATSC 3.0 signal or decides to provide datacasting services on either. Consumer advocates were concerned that some stations may switch from an HD signal to a standard-definition (SD) one on order to free up spectrum for datacasting, especially if they decided to launch an ATSC 3.0 signal.

But the FCC didn’t share this concern, saying there was no requirement for television stations to offer an HD signal at all, even though many of them currently do. At the same time, it reserved itself the right to impose such a requirement based on how broadcasters were rolling out their ATSC 3.0 signals.

The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group representing many major radio and television station operators, declared the FCC’s order a win for Next Gen TV and the possibilities it provides.

“NAB appreciates the commission’s attention to the development of ATSC 3.0 and all of the consumer benefits that will follow,” Anne Marie Cumming, a senior executive with the group, said in a statement.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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