Next-Gen OTA TV in U.S. may be Closer than Thought

What should we make of the high percentage of U.S. terrestrial broadcasters who have already committed, through equipment orders, to make their stations Next-Gen TV-ready?

It may signify plans for a rapid switchover to the new ATSC 3.0 terrestrial broadcast system that was ratified earlier this year and is running in South Korea. But a closer reading of the tea leaves tempers some of that enthusiasm.

Caution is warranted because these stations are moving to new spectrum assignments in accordance with the FCC’s repacking of TV channels within the 600 MHz spectrum band. This was mandated by the Broadcast Incentive Auction, which concluded in 2017. Transitions are ongoing and are scheduled to be completed in July 2020—a deadline, by the way, that most in the broadcast sector believe can’t be met.

Most have ordered “upgraded” equipment to enable the broadcast of the new system when migrating to a new channel. This doesn’t necessarily mean these broadcasters have immediate plans to switch to ATSC 3.0, but it does mean they are considering migrating from current-generation transmissions to the new one.

Although the government is reimbursing broadcasters for the new “like-for-like” transmission equipment necessary to operate on the new channels, the “upgrade” portion required to be ATSC 3.0-compliant comes directly out of their pockets.

Antenna market-share leader, Dielectric, told attendees at the recent Texas Association of Broadcasters convention that as many as 95% of repacking broadcasters have ordered “upgraded” antennas. So, how much, on average, are broadcasters paying out of their pockets to be next-gen TV ready? There are a number of transmission scenarios, but the most common are high-power stations with a single-channel slot-type antenna installing a new vertically-polarized (V-pol) antenna. This typically represents about an $18,000 to $25,000 cost differential above current antennas. Additionally, this new antenna will likely result in a need for increased transmitter power, adding 15% to 20% more in transmitter costs.

It may not be an eye-popping amount of money, but it’s enough that broadcasters wouldn’t take writing the check lightly if they didn’t have plans to make the transition—someday. Those with a more long-term outlook are basically buying an insurance policy against the considerable costs and headaches of reinforcing towers and installing antennas in the future. Broadcasters get more bang for the buck by installing an antenna that will accommodate their new channel (and possibly fill in some current coverage holes) and also allow them to transmit an ATSC 3.0 signal when they decide to adopt the new system. Since government reimbursement includes the tower work and equipment installation, why not do it once and avoid the additional cost in the future?

But for those who want to adopt sooner, the ATSC 3.0-ready plan is more than just an insurance policy. Those station owners believe their future success lies in adoption, so they have already laid out first-phase plans. Systems are built (or being built) in Raleigh, North Carolina (WRAL), Cleveland (test station), Phoenix (Pearl TV) and Dallas (Spectrum Co.).

The pioneers will have to lead the way. Many others who choose to follow later will have already gotten a start.