Elephants in the Room

Now that the FCC has approved ATSC 3.0 transmission, broadcasters need to get ahead of 5G.

“There’s no business like show business,” and production and distribution of TV content is the focus of most of the lights, cameras and action. Broadcast television was once synonymous with “a license to print money.” The easy-money days are as long gone as CRTs, because the one-to-many TV business model has morphed into many-to-one.

Last week I attended a webinar titled "So ATSC 3.0 got the FCC nod. Now what?" It was a panel discussion presented by GatesAir represented by CPO Rich Redmond, Imagine Communications represented by CTO Steve Reynolds and CPO Sara Foss, along with Chet Dagit from Lokota Solutions. The pane was moderated by Allan MeLennan of PADEM Media Group.

Internet Connection

The ATSC 3.0 technology is also called "NextGen TV".  It relies on similar technology to the internet and can enable a more direct connection between the broadcast station and its audience. Unlike the internet, broadcast TV can reach all audiences in a geographic market wirelessly and it’s free.

The internet can be a component of ATSC 3.0, but that connection is not a requirement. A stand-alone ATSC 3.0 TV receiver will display ATSC 3.0 broadcasts, even without any back channel path. However, internet-connected ATSC 3.0 receivers can make the viewing experience more personalized when a return channel is enabled.

Figure 1. ATSC 3.0 is near ready for prime time. Courtesy Imagine Communications. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. ATSC 3.0 is near ready for prime time. Courtesy Imagine Communications. Click to enlarge.

Users of the technology may be rightfully nervous about security and privacy. An important aspect of ATSC 3.0 are its privacy settings. Viewers connected to the internet can access a built-in menu to control what data is made available on the back channel. The level of personalization in the viewing experience is dependent on the amount information the viewer chooses to share. The level of privacy is determined by the individual. Proponents say that whatever data viewers choose to share cannot be tied by to specific individuals or names.

ATSC 3.0 gives broadcasters the capability to "touch" their viewers by defining data-driven audiences of individuals and geographies to down to block-by-block levels. Terms including “hyper-localized, hyper-specific” and "micro-targeting" are sometimes used to describe the granularity available.

Beyond the potential for better pictures and a more personalized viewing experience, Next Gen TV provides stations new advertising sales tools. Hyper-localized markets make it possible to slice up the “one inventory, one-audience” model to achieve advertiser objectives in more efficient ways. Viewers of OTA content can be targeted much like they are with the internet, which could help level the advertising playing field for broadcasters.

CES and XXIII Olympic Winter Games

It appears that 2018 will be significant for Next Gen TV. Certainly next month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will be packed with 4K/UHD, ATSC 3.0 compatible TV receivers. The upcoming XXIII Olympic Winter Games in South Korea, will be produced and broadcast in ATSC 3.0 throughout the country.

A successful wide-scale broadcast of the 2018 Winter Olympics with Next Gen TV will do much to reinforce the technology's credibility. More limited tests are underway in the U.S. 

Stealth Competitor--5G

Broadcasters may not enjoy a competition-free launch of UHD television as cell phone companies begin rollout of their 5G networks to provide similar services. However, like broadcasters who had to wait for SMPTE to release ST2110 before wide-scale IP facility construction, the cellular carriers do not yet have final 5G technical specifications. Because the specification process for 5G is a multi-step progression, full release may not happen until 2020. See Figure 2.

Why should broadcasters care about a 'phone service'? In short because 5G will be much more than simply a way for users to more quickly update their Facebook pages. A 4G LTE link can handle about 1Gbs. It would take an hour to download a short HD movie under perfect conditions. As any RF engineer can tell you, there are no perfect conditions, so when it comes to actual downlink speeds, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

5G will increase download speeds to a maximum of 10Gbs. At that speed a full HD movie can be downloaded in a matter of seconds. It will also reduce latency significantly, meaning faster load times. Bottom line for OTA broadcasters, 5G could become a significant competitor because it will offer high-speed wireless broadband to power thousands of connected devices.

UHD is another cloaked elephant. 4K UHD requires 4 times the pixels of an HD image along with four times the bandwidth. In digital broadcasting, bandwidth = Channels = $, and HDTV has taught broadcasters that sponsors pay for eyeballs, not eye candy. From a business prospective, more channels should add to ROI without significantly increasing the investment. New technology will make more channels possible and easier to program.

Figure 2. Few standards exist currently to support a rollout of 5G technology. Many predict the service will not become widely available until 2020, in time for the Summer Olympics. Image courtesy RYSAVY Research.

Figure 2. Few standards exist currently to support a rollout of 5G technology. Many predict the service will not become widely available until 2020, in time for the Summer Olympics. Image courtesy RYSAVY Research.

Underlying 5G technology

A 5G signal operates the millimeter wave bands between 20 and 60GHz, which is line-of-sight at best, and it degrades with common atmospheric conditions like precipitation and fog. On the other hand, there’s enough bandwidth to support channels with data speeds up to 10 Gb/s. The key to reliable bandwidth is short distances.

The higher frequency of 5G will force cellular carriers to move from scattered tall towers to small clustered sites such as utility poles and rooftops. Why? Because bandwidth decreases with distance. The same thing happens with ATSC 3.0 signals. This is one reason many RF component manufacturers are predicting a shift in the US from the common single site distribution model to Single-Frequency Networks (SFNs) beginning about 2020.

In ATSC 1.0, SFN interference is destructive. ATSC 3.0 is designed to make SFN interference constructive by combining multiple SFN signals to build a single data stream. ATSC 3.0 SFNs could eliminate the need for external receiver antennas. Cellular devices typically use internal antennas. Why not TVs?

The cost of 5G R&D, rollout and running the 5G network is anticipated to collectively total about $200 billion. The big players in the mobile carrier industry plan initial 5G rollout in 2020, but it is unclear if 5G will generate any additional revenue. Is there enough money to pay for 5G without it becoming the primary delivery service for streaming video?

I’m thinking the mobile carrier industry may be betting on TV. Nothing in the consumer world consumes more bandwidth than high-resolution, high frame-rate video. Meanwhile, “There’s no business like show business,” and mobile carriers have to be giddy about the fact that in 10 years Netflix has grown from zero to more subscribers than all US cable companies combined. And, they made it look easy. On the other hand, local over-the-air TV is free, and its brands are uniquely powerful.

Cloaked elephants

What’s truly amazing in a business where broadcast technology is the best HDTV, UHD, HDR, WCG, IP Video and GbE in the world, is that some insiders can’t see the herd of elephants in the room. 90 years ago, Philo Farnsworth's first image dissector camera tube probably would have shown them. Somehow, these digital elephants seem to be digitally cloaked.

For example, what’s the path for an ATSC 1.0 to 3.0 transition? There aren’t any subsidized $50 converter boxes or new second channels. In fact, TV broadcasters have lost about half their spectrum over the years. Many stations are now being forced to move to channel 20-something, and everyone is being told to work out the ATSC 3.0 transition among themselves.

As an industry, we can’t even agree what to call it. Is it ATSC 3.0 or NextGen TV? Can't we pick one name that our moms, dads, kids and neighbors think is cool, and turn it into an American icon? If you’re not inside the industry, just the sound of “ATSC 3.0” is intimidating technical gibberish that says nothing. Wouldn't “NextGen” make more sense? Nobody talks about “5G Phones,” because “5G” says it all. If the “TV” suffix needs to stay, then ATSC needs to decide if it’s spelled “Next-Gen TV,” “NextGen TV” or “NextGenTV,” because it is spelled all these ways in ATSC press information and internet search results. To be clear, the official FCC nomenclature is "Next Gen TV."

Will fierce competitors agree?

Some have said that larger group owners will cooperate to roll out ATSC 3.0 in a few key markets. But other than sharing a tower, when is the last time you saw more than three TV stations with separate owners in any market cooperate on much of anything? How would the owners decide which of them will be the 1.0 lighthouse station, giving up all its secondary digital channels to transmit its competitor’s signals in an obsolete format?

Display screen size disparity is another cloaked elephant. Are more TV viewers watching on >50” screens or are more watching their iPhones and tablets? NHK has announced the 2020 Summer Olympics will be produced in 8K. Will anyone other than video aficionados and sports bars care? I don’t have a definitive answer but it’s obvious which direction TV viewing habits are trending.

Does 4K look better on a cell phone than it does on a living-room-size video display? Is the bandwidth sacrifice worth it, if most viewers can’t see it’s benefits? The future business model for TV broadcasters isn't more pixels, it's more channels.

One exhibitor provided a magnifying glass to reveal the detail of its 60” 8K display at the NAB Show.

One exhibitor provided a magnifying glass to reveal the detail of its 60” 8K display at the NAB Show.

Hyper-local sales

The television industry is moving to narrowcasting, and that is essentially what’s been happening to the music and radio industry for decades. Narrowcasting is microtargeting, which can become a tool for broadcast advertising. HDTV content can be produced for a fraction of its cost compared to a decade ago. YouTube proves all one really needs to attract an audience is the right idea and a smart phone. One does not need a 53-ft OB truck to create 4K content. Creating hyper-specific channels with hyper-localized advertising is not that complicated. It would only take a few people to create and run a local hyper-channel.

Brand is everything

If there’s one thing local broadcasters own, it’s their local brand in their local market. A local station’s brand is its DNA and soul. Brands aren’t objects for sale, they're an expectation and reputation that is built and earned over time.

Once a brand is successful, viewers don’t and won’t care how their favorite locals brand is delivered, so long as it is available anywhere, anytime, on any device. Even so, if a brand becomes a headline on competitors' newscasts, it can crash and burn in the blink of an eye, as Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer recently demonstrated.

How viewers connect with their favorite local TV brand is inconsequential. Would local TV be better and more reliable over ATSC 3.0 broadcast networks rather that a mobile provider's 5G channel? Can they co-exist? Right now, satellite and terrestrial MVPDs aren't showing much interest in ATSC 3.0. I’m only an engineer, but I’d say the business model that makes the most money wins.

The bigger question is, how will these new methods of delivery impact local broadcasting, where brand is everything and content is king? Only for the better, if local broadcasters stay focused serving their local communities. The outcome of 5G versus ATSC 3.0 will determine the future of tall TV towers and high-power TV transmitters. Other than that, the more effective and efficient ways to sell and experience TV will be a win-win for everyone.

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