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In bid for FCC transparency, Pai releases Next Gen TV proposal

The FCC will be considering two items at its Feb. 23 open meeting: a notice of proposed rulemaking on whether TV broadcasters should transition to the next-generation ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, and a report and order giving AM radio broadcasters more flexibility in siting their FM translators.

Notably, in a significant change from past protocol, Chairman Ajit Pai has released the full texts of both the proposed rulemaking and the report and order ahead of the meeting.

"We believe that releasing these documents — rather than keeping them behind closed doors until after our vote — will increase the public's understanding of our decision-making process, and result in final rules that better serve the public interest," Pai said in a Feb. 2 statement explaining his decision.

Historically, FCC chairmen have shared the text of draft proposals and reports with the other FCC commissioners at least three weeks before any vote. But the text of those documents was not publicly released until after the vote took place.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., were quick to applaud the move, saying, "This is the type of transparency we've been urging the FCC to implement for the last several Congresses."

In January, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2017, which contained provisions designed to make the FCC more efficient, transparent and accountable. One of the reforms included in the bill, which has yet to be approved by the full Senate, would require the public release of circulated documents ahead of a vote.

In terms of the two agenda items for the Feb. 23 meeting, the proposed rulemaking on the ATSC 3.0 standard seeks to adopt rules that would allow broadcasters to deploy ATSC 3.0-based transmissions, while minimizing the impact on consumers and pay TV providers.

In line with that, the FCC proposes to allow voluntary use of ATSC 3.0 transmissions by broadcasters. To protect pay TV providers, the commission proposes that multichannel video programming distributors will only be required to continue carrying broadcasters' ATSC 1.0 signals, not the ATSC 3.0 signals. The commission furthers seeks comment on issues related to the voluntary carriage of ATSC 3.0 signals through the retransmission consent process.

The ATSC 3.0 standard, also known as Next Gen TV, combines over-the-air transmission and internet-delivered content, allowing consumers to watch over-the-air programming on mobile devices and enabling broadcasters to offer targeted advertising and personalization.

The report and order, meanwhile, would relax a rule that states where an FM fill-in translator rebroadcasting an AM broadcast station may be sited.

Pai noted Feb. 2 that he intentionally chose a notice of proposed rulemaking and a report and order for the upcoming meeting.

"An NPRM and a Report and Order are essentially the beginning and the end of a conversation that an administrative agency has with the American public about regulation," he said, noting that one document announces a proposal while another announces a decision.

Pai noted the public release of the documents is a "pilot project" that if successful will become a common practice.

"Should things go well, my hope is to make it the norm to publicly release, well in advance, the text of all agenda items for monthly Commission meetings," he said.

Of course if the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act becomes law, the public release of proposals and orders may be required regardless of how the pilot goes.