Irwin Podhajser, an industry expert for streaming, kicks off FreeCast’s Executive Blog series by explaining developments in OTT vs. OTA. For those unfamiliar, OTT stands for Over-The-Top, and includes digital streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, SelectTV, and more. OTA stands for Over-The-Air, and represents traditional broadcast TV transmitted through air waves.

“There have been three major developments with OTA over the last decade,” reports Podhajser. “One of them started with the digital transition in the late 2000s where television went from analog to digital.” Following this, companies purchased thousands of construction permits for low-powered television stations. These stations had smaller signals than their larger competitors.

“Then, the next thing that happened was just a few years later. They had the spectrum auction,” continues Podhajser. Spectrum is the “range of frequencies used to transmit sound, data and video,” among other things (Source: Dru Sefton, Current). In this auction, “they were going to sell lots and lots of television spectrum and then re-pack all of the television stations into a smaller section,” Podhajser explained. 

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This spelled doom for all of the thousands of aforementioned construction permit holders. The prospect of building their smaller stations just to lose spectrum caused an outcry, leading the FCC to waive their buildout periods. Podhajser elaborated, stating that “all of a sudden, all of these low-power operators had an opportunity to wait and see what happened with the auction.”

The FCC’s imposed timetable ended shortly after the spectrum auction. Therefore, these companies adapted. “What they did is they started to build them temporarily and then shut them down, what is called ‘silent authority,’” said Podhajser. 

Believe it or not, this whole ordeal is ongoing, with the final build-out expected to occur in 2022. However, the FCC is now combating this “silent authority” with new regulations. “That’s going to put everything at risk,” claims Podhajser. “Thousands of potential new TV stations that could be coming online in the next several years. . . tens of thousands of sub-channels could just not exist.”

How OTA Affects OTT

Podhajser influenced the third major OTA development, which occurred at the same time as the spectrum auction occurred. “It’s time for a new television standard called ATSC 3.0. And that’s already being put into development,” he said.

By reinstating this timetable, the FCC is limiting the potential for these smaller broadcast stations to adopt the new standard. Podhajser compares this to a “huge beachfront property” where you can’t build any houses or attractions to profit off, or you have to build them in the next year, “or else.”

Podhajser brings it all together by addressing why OTT industries should be aware of what’s going on with OTA broadcasters. “You don’t look at OTA as a competitor, you need to look at OTA as a sibling. There’s opportunities to work together. They’re important to each other.”

Future executive vlogs will address how these partnerships can function, but Podhajser leaves us with this: “We have to care what the FCC is doing because it’s just simply not fair. . . the supply chains are all backed up, there are a lot of stations that are simply not going to meet this deadline, and we need to get the FCC to change its mind on this.”

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