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New TV Standard Could Be Huge for Cord Cutters, But Privacy Concerns Linger

If done correctly, ATSC 3.0 should dramatically improve the quality of over the air television, but there are legitimate concerns that industry players will abuse the standard.

by Karl Bode
Jun 6 2018, 2:56pm

A new TV standard dubbed ATSC 3.0 will soon result in even better picture and sound quality, especially if you’re one of the millions of US consumers using an antenna to get over the air TV. At the same time, critics worry that the standards creation process isn’t taking consumer privacy, digital rights management (DRM) and interoperability concerns particularly seriously.

ATSC, or Advanced Television Systems Committee, is a group tasked with determining what the future of television will look like.

Its latest effort, ATSC 3.0, is an attempt to update over the air broadcasts to include support for Ultra HD, High Dynamic Range (HDR), and the kind of interactivity traditionally seen with cable TV and streaming video services. The standard should also boost broadcast refresh rates up to 120Hz while improving overall indoor reception of TV signals.

“With higher capacity to deliver Ultra High-Definition services, robust reception on a wide range of devices, improved efficiency, IP transport, advanced emergency alerting, personalization features and interactive capability, the ATSC 3.0 Standard provides much more capability than previous generations of terrestrial broadcasting,” notes a primer by the group.

If you’re a cord cutter that’s particularly good news.

As cable providers continue to jack up prices and flail at efforts to improve customer service, more and more users are cutting the cord and embracing over the air (OTA) broadcasts via antenna. One recent study by Parks Associates found that 20 percent of US broadband households now use digital antennas to enjoy OTA broadcasts, up from 15 percent in early 2015.

“Citizens United and the government’s failure to at least do something useful in the realm of enhanced transparency has resulted in viewers being bombarded with misleading election and issue ads."

The antenna has seen a particular resurgence among Millennials freshly struck by the novelty of being able to get free television without having to deal with Comcast. But the older version of the ATSC standard limited image quality to 1080i and 720p resolutions for digital and HDTV broadcasts, making the UltraHD and HDR update a particularly welcome improvement.

What the full, final standard will look like is still being negotiated, but last November the FCC approved the new standard on a "voluntary, market-driven basis” with a 3-2 agency vote. As a result, most analysts expect the standard to arrive sometime around 2020—provided it doesn’t get bogged down in industry infighting.

“By authorizing the rollout of the next generation broadcast television standard on a voluntary, market-driven basis, we open the door to a substantially improved, free, over-the-air television broadcast service, and fiercer competition in the video marketplace,” proclaimed FCC boss Ajit Pai at the time.

But like everything, there’s some caveats.

One, it’s unclear how many broadcasters will be willing to eat the costs necessary to upgrade to the new standard. And given it’s not backward compatible, consumers could balk at having to pay even more money for compatible hardware—especially so soon after upgrading to new 4K-capable televisions and audio equipment in the first place.

That said, you won’t have to upgrade at first if you don’t want to; broadcasters have agreed to continue using the existing ATSC 1.0 standard for a period of five years after ATSC 3.0 formally launches. And you hopefully shouldn't need to buy a completely new television, since users with older ATSC 1.0 tuners should only need to buy an ATSC 3.0 compatible adapter.

But the biggest point of contention surrounding the standard has to do with digital rights management (DRM) and consumer privacy.

The industry is of course using the standard’s development to demand significantly stronger DRM for these broadcasts. And while those efforts aren’t finalized, if implemented poorly it could spell trouble for third-party hardware vendors like Tablo, TiVo, and Plex, who sell a variety of hardware and software that lets consumers record over the air broadcasts via DVR.

Should entrenched cable and broadcast companies (which in Comcast NBC Universal’s case is one and the same) have too much influence on the standard’s construction, they could use it to ensure that products that challenge their cable box monopoly and traditional television businesses aren’t as compatible with the new DRM as they otherwise could be.

Many are also worried about the standard’s impact on consumer privacy and targeted advertising, especially in politics.

Historically, OTA broadcasts have been a decidedly one-way affair. But the new standard incorporates the ability to send return path data back to broadcasters, opening the door to new consumer data collection and the use of region-specific targeted advertising.

Such data collection and behavioral advertising certainly isn’t new. But S. Derek Turner, Research Director for consumer advocacy firm Free Press, tells Motherboard he’s particularly concerned that the standard could have a decidedly negative impact on the political advertising landscape in the wake of media consolidation and our quest to quell rampant disinformation.

“While we’ve read volumes of hand-wringing about the role of social media advertising in manipulating the electorate, the bulk of election ad spending and the bulk of its efficacy still takes place on broadcast television,” notes Turner, who adds that’s particularly true of state and district elections.

The new standard, combined with the erosion of media consolidation rules in the broadcast space, could open the door to the standard being weaponized by certain companies in a country that’s still coming to terms with the use of disinformation during the last election, he warns.

“Citizens United and the government’s failure to at least do something useful in the realm of enhanced transparency has resulted in viewers being bombarded with misleading election and issue ads whose origins are impossible to discern,” Turner said. “But with targeted broadcast ads, this could turn into a situation where manipulation tactics are optimized and third-party tracking of these campaigns rendered impossible.”

“That is, if you’re worried about the impact of social media ad targeting on our democracy, reach for the antacid because ASTC 3.0 is the tool that brings those problems into the mainstream media market,” Turner warns. “This concern is compounded by the massive consolidation occurring in the broadcast space, with Sinclair, Fox, and Nexstar dominating local news markets and growing their reach well above the 39 percent level Congress set in the statute.”

When the FCC approved the standard last fall, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also expressed concerns in her dissenting opinion that the standard approval process was being handled in an “irresponsibly imprecise and cavalier” manner by the FCC. Consumer privacy and DRM concerns weren’t being adequately examined by the FCC, she argued.

“I also think we need to better understand targeted advertising on television and the implications for privacy, the use of encrypted signals, the collection of audience data, and the susceptibility to hacking and malware,” Rosenworcel warned.

You’ll likely have several years before you need to worry about any of this. If done correctly, the standard should dramatically improve the quality of over the air television. That said, there are legitimate concerns that industry players will abuse the standard creation process to ensure that privacy, transparency and openness are all distant afterthoughts.