Sinclair and Nexstar take a big step toward the next generation of TV

The Next-Gen TV Hub at NAB Show 2017 in Las Vegas.

Sinclair’s and Nexstar Media’s new coordinated transition plans for ATSC 3.0 serve as one of the most concrete plans for the still-nascent technology, which will usher in the next generation of broadcast TV.

Jerry Fritz, executive vice president of strategic and legal affairs at Sinclair, said the first step is to find “like-minded broadcasters who are intent on deploying ATSC 3.0.” After that, it’s a matter of sitting down with all the broadcasters on a market-by-market basis and determining which station is best for hosting of ATSC 1.0 and which is best for 3.0.

He said that Sinclair and Nexstar have jumpstarted that process with their coordinated transition announcement. The companies will put their plan into action in 97 markets, including 43 markets where both companies own a television station.

In the joint markets, Sinclair and Nexstar will have to decide which one will host 1.0, which will host 3.0, how will diginets be moved around, and how will the new technology be deployed. The companies plan to involve other broadcasters in those markets in the conversations as well.

Deciding factors on how to structure the ATSC 3.0 transition will include considering which stations’ towers have the best reach, which stations can deploy single frequency networks, and which facilities are set up for the most flexible use of bit pooling.

Bit pooling is when a broadcaster takes their 6 megahertz of spectrum and chops it up to be digitized, under ATSC 3.0 that leaves about 25 Mbps of throughput. Then, the stations within a same market combine those bits leftover after the required TV service is provided, and they can lease them to anyone who wants them, Fritz said.

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Specifically, he mentioned using the bits for 3D mapping for driverless cars, extra last-mile bandwidth, or large-scale software upgrades.

Bit leasing is a big revenue opportunity for broadcasters, and one that Fritz said would likely be run by a third party.

“Next-gen TV is not just TV. It’s a great, big giant data pipe with TV being one kind of data that can go over it,” Fritz said.

That potential in the extra bits is what is driving other Sinclair initiatives including the spectrum consortium between Sinclair, Nexstar, Univision and Northwest Broadcasting, which is seeking maximum continent U.S. coverage as quickly as possible so they can offer nationwide data services. Together, the four broadcasters that are party to the consortium reach approximately 90% of the country, according to a news release.

To get to 100%, Sinclair and other members of the consortium will have to recruit more broadcasters, and the more broadcasters that get involved, the more complicated the process will become. Fritz said the coordinated transition is being built in to address that complexity, which is exacerbated since its happening in conjunction with the broadcast incentive auction channel repack.

There are more than 1,000 stations that will move to new channels as a result of the auctions and they have about 39 months to do it. Fritz said that Sinclair believes many of the broadcasters getting new transmitters to facilitate the shift will opt for transmitters than can handle both ATSC 1.0 and 3.0. That way, when those broadcasters are ready to begin transmitting in 3.0, it will just require a software upgrade.

Stations that are not repacking will have to buy their own transmitters, since the U.S. government is only covering the costs of new transmitters for repacking stations.

But once those new transmitters are in place and the FCC has given its official green light for ATSC 3.0—which is expected to happen in late 2017—the first new features of the technology will show up in the form of improved audio and video quality for broadcast television. Once ATSC 3.0 chips make it into smartphones, then mobile broadcast reception will become possible.

“This is as big a sea change we’ve had in broadcasting distribution in the last half-century,” Fritz said.