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Coming Soon: A New HD Video Standard For TV. Will Over-The-Air Broadcasts Remain Free?

Federal communications Commission logo Soon, consumers will hear about improvements in over-the-air broadcast television. Free, broadcast television has been around since forever, and High Definition (HD) broadcast signals have been around since 2009. Many consumers have chosen free, over-the-air broadcast television to avoid expensive monthly cable-TV bills.

Consumer Reports explained:

"Technically called ATSC 3.0, the new broadcast standard is—thankfully—being more generally billed as "Next-Gen Broadcast TV." There are a few big differences between our current ATSC 1.0 broadcasts and the new ones we'll receive as part of ATSC 3.0. A key one is that the new standard is IP (internet protocol)-based, which means it can carry internet content alongside traditional TV broadcasts. The broadcasts can also include 4K video and high dynamic range (HDR) content—the two biggest selling points in TVs right now."

And, consumers will be able to receive the new HD broadcast signals on their smart phones. Reportedly, the coming ATSC 3.0 standard will use a more efficient video format, called HEVC or H.265, which streaming services already use.

Last year, WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina began to broadcast using the new standard with a documentary, "Take Me Out To the Bulls' Game." The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced in February a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) which sought comments from the public about the new HD broadcast standard. That FCC announcement stated, in part:

"ATSC 3.0 has the potential to greatly improve broadcast signal reception on mobile devices and television receivers without outdoor antennas.  It is also intended to enable broadcasters to offer enhanced and innovative new features to consumers, including Ultra High Definition picture and immersive audio, more localized programming content, an advanced emergency alert system capable of waking up sleeping devices to warn consumers of imminent emergencies, improved accessibility options, and interactive services.

A coalition of broadcast and consumer electronics industry representatives petitioned the Commission to allow the use of the new standard. The upgraded technology is intended to merge the capabilities of over-the-air broadcasting with the broadband viewing and information delivery methods of the Internet using the same 6 MHz channels presently allocated for digital television (DTV)."

Like most things in life, details matter. Consumer Reports warned:

"... Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, says that some consumers could lose the ability to get some ATSC 1.0 signals if the host station is located farther away than their current broadcaster.

"Our position is that next-gen TV can and will be beneficial to consumers if implemented by the FCC in a measured and conscientious manner," he says. That could include making sure the current coverage areas are preserved as much as possible, not allowing broadcasters to downgrade the quality of ATSC 1.0 broadcasts from high to standard definition, and providing consumers with education on issues such as the timing of the transition and what new equipment they may need."

So, some broadcasters might choose to cut corners while migrating to the new standard: reduce their existing HD over-the-air signal strength, degrade their existing HD signal quality, or both. Not good.

And, there's more bad news for consumers. The new HD broadcast standard may cost more. You're probably wondering how, since over-the-air broadcasts have been free since television was introduced. Consumer Reports explained:

"... broadcasters could encrypt at least part of their programming, and require users to create an account and pay for access to certain features. No details are available on how this would work from the consumer's point of view. Consumers Union and other groups say they will insist that consumers continue to have access to free over-the air high-definition TV reception."

The new HD broadcast standard should not include hidden costs or new fees for consumers. For many consumers, new televisions are expensive and out of reach. Many consumers have chosen to "cut the cord" to save money. For these consumers, free over-the-air broadcast television is vital.

Nor should broadcasters be able to cut corners and force consumers to the new HD standard by degrading their existing HD signal strength and/or quality. The new HD broadcast standard should be voluntary for consumers. Nor should consumers be forced to submit to broadcasters their personal, contact, and payment information. One of the benefits of over-the-air broadcasts is privacy.

The next-gen TV standard offers benefits to both consumers and broadcasters. The FCC must balance the needs of both, and not serve only one group. The industry uses the term "Multi-channel Video Programming Distributors" (MVPD) to describe companies that provide video content. These MVPD companies include video producers and distributors: legacy cable-TV providers, TV networks, and others that provide programming via cable, the Internet, and over-the-air broadcasts.

Some MVPDs do both: produce and distribute video content. These MVPDs have a financial bias to force consumers from free over-the-air broadcasts to their proprietary, higher cost distribution networks (e.g., cable, internet). Consumers must have the freedom to choose how they consumer video content, and not have a distribution network forced upon them via bundling, "retransmission consent system," or other MVPD tactics.

What are retransmission consent systems? This 16-142 filing by Consumer's Union, Public Knowledge, and New America's Open Technology Institute explained (Adobe PDF):

"It is increasingly axiomatic that, when MVPDs and broadcast groups engage in retransmission consent negotiations, consumers end up suffering, or footing the bill, or both. Increased broadcast retransmission consent fees are passed on to consumers by MVPDs who have little choice but to accept most broadcaster demands or face crippling blackouts.... Large MVPDs, and those which also own broadcast interests, also use the retransmission consent process to extract favorable terms, potentially limiting the growth or viability of competitive video services. Comcast, for example, is rumored to have fleshed out its fledgling over-the-top (OTT) service by exercising most-favored-nation clauses in many of its carriage contracts. Comcast can only demand such favorable contract terms due to its dominant position in the video delivery marketplace, and once again, consumers are left holding the bag..."

So, the FCC must not make things worse for consumers by allowing the new HD broadcast standard to reduce competition and raise prices. Higher prices may be good for MVPDs (and their stockholders) but not for consumers.

If you want to submit a comment or read comments already submitted about the new HD broadcast standard, search for the 16-142 Filing within the FCC's Electronic Filing & Comment System (ECFS). At press time, only 167 persons, companies, and entities had submitted filings and comments (compared to 2,869,632 comments via ECFS about Net Neutrality). Not good.

What are your opinions about the new HD video broadcast standard?

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