LPTV Group Urges FCC to Consider Datacasting to Close ‘Homework Gap’

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An LPTV station group has asked the FCC to consider the benefits of datacasting via over-the-air broadcasting when doling out funds for the Emergency Connectivity Fund for educational devices and connections. 

Last month, the commission issued a public notice for input on the $7 billion fund, which was part of the recently enacted nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The fund is designed to help promote and enhance broadband connectivity for rural and low-income households needing remote education services. 

Specifically, the FCC asked for feedback on what types of devices should be subsidized, the bandwidth speeds and who would qualify. In response, ARK Multicasting, one of the largest low power TV operators in the United States, told the commission that it should consider the value of datacasting over-the-air as a valid and cost-effective method for providing remote education. 

ARK manages 283 licenses and construction permits covering approximately 100 million people (one-third of the US population) across 40 states with a strong presence outside of major metropolitan areas, and has been active in developing technology for ATSC 3.0 (aka “NextGen TV”).

In comments to the FCC filed this week, ARK described its technology as “a hybrid network architecture that combines broadcast television spectrum for wide area, high speed downloads using third party existing wireless networks for uploads,” and is “ideally suited” for distance learning. 

(Read: Local TV Stations Take on Remote Learning Needs)

ARK also reminded the commission to think outside of the box when it comes to tech options

“As a threshold matter, the public notice is too narrowly focused on existing unicast broadband networks while ignoring numerous states and school districts utilizing datacasting made possible by ATSC 1.0 and increasingly ATSC 3.0,” ARK told the commission. “South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV)2, Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations (IPBS)3 and Pennsylvania PBS4 have all implemented datacasting services to close the digital divide during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, these datacasting initiatives reach the most vulnerable students caught in the homework gap—the 658,000 households across the United States where Internet access is never available for educational purposes.

The fact that the FCC is focused only on “video conferencing” as the standard for distance learning leaves out the kind of alternatives available via datacasting, ARK said.

“While ARK takes no position on the system requirements for a connected device to be eligible for funding, we do not believe that video conferencing is an appropriate litmus test for what constitutes remote learning,” the company said. “Datacasting has the same ability to deliver homework assignments, classroom instructional videos and reading materials to students as any internet service provider, but it has the added benefit of being able to provide these key services to students unserved by existing unicast broadband networks. As a result, datacasting is an important distance learning solution for students in areas without any internet access or providers.”  

ARK said existing infrastructures allow broadcasters to deploy datacasting services for distance learning cheaply, without the need for new buildouts. It also pointed to the benefits of ATSC 3.0 in providing more enhanced distance learning services.

“LPTV broadcasters, like ARK, also have the unique ability to deploy higher bandwidth ATSC 3.0 broadcast internet services in unserved areas in as fast as 60-90 days,” ARK told the commission. “This deployment is further accelerated by the Commission’s recent adoption of distributed transmission systems (DTS) which allows LPTV to build ATSC 3.0 in a manner that prioritizes transmission nodes in areas around schools and in neighborhoods as ARK is currently deploying for the Dallas Independent School District.”

ARK also reminded the FCC of the advantages of broadcast’s “one to many” scenario when it comes to datacasting. 

“When datacasting is utilized for remote learning, bandwidth is not constrained by additional students in a household,” ARK said. “Educational materials from all grade levels at all schools in a school district are delivered to the caching device at the household, there are no competing bandwidth demands… and because the learning materials are broadcast to the entire footprint of a broadcaster, anyone with the appropriate equipment can receive the learning materials. Data caps are not an issue.” 

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.