NAB CEO Slates Apple for Ignoring ATSC 3.0 Chips

NAB CEO Gordon Smith’s criticism of Apple for failing to incorporate broadcast-capable chips in its mobile devices was timely for several reasons, even if it may fall on deaf ears.

Firstly it comes just two weeks after unveiling of the Apple TV Plus subscription service scheduled for launch in the fall of 2019, available via apps and for the first time extending beyond the Apple ecosystem to smart TVs, as well as MacOS and iOS devices. Apple has signaled it will differentiate itself from competitors such as Netflix and the forthcoming Disney+ by being more of an aggregator as well as purveyor of original content, although in this respect it is following to some extent in Amazon’s footsteps.

Secondly it comes when commercial deployments of the third generation ATSC 3.0 are looming, with some broadcasters themselves interested in the prospect of delivering directly to smart phones over the air to dedicated chips. However, speaking in the organization’s annual State of the Industry address at the 2019 NAB Show, Smith accused Apple of refusing to enable broadcast chips in its devices.

Apple has not commented on Smith’s accusation but was probably rather bemused, because these are early days for ATSC 3.0. We are only aware so far of one System-on-a-Chip (SoC) demodulator supporting the ATSC 3.0 standard, launched at CES 2019 this January. That comes from ONE Media 3.0, LLC, a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group, and Saankhya Labs in collaboration with VeriSilicon and Samsung Foundry. It is based on Saankhya's patented Software Defined Radio platform and supports 12 DTV standards including ATSC 3.0, as well as the European equivalent DVB-T2 and the Japanese ISDB-T also widely deployed in Latin America.

This is significant because its launch followed Sinclair Broadcast Group's commitment to a nationwide roll-out of ATSC 3.0 service and also its prior announcement to fund millions of chipsets for donation to wireless operators. There are two variants of which one is for linear TV applications in set top boxes or home gateways and the other for mobile and portable devices.

It would be surprising at this stage if Apple had committed to such technology, especially given its historical antipathy to mobile broadcast of any kind. Apple was notable for rebutting overtures from the cellular community as well in declining to support LTE Broadcast in earlier iPhones. Its lack of commitment to ATSC 3.0 does not therefore reflect any preference either way for the broadcasting or cellular approaches to multicast video delivery to mobiles.

NAB CEO Gordon Smith called for modernization of “outdated” broadcast regulations to help legacy players compete with the tech giants, echoing similar sentiments in Europe.

NAB CEO Gordon Smith called for modernization of “outdated” broadcast regulations to help legacy players compete with the tech giants, echoing similar sentiments in Europe.

Times are changing though and Smith’s comment is poignant in the context of Apple’s trajectory in TV and the general advance in streaming. Apple already has experience of delivering on-demand video in large quantities to mobile devices over its iCloud infrastructure within iTunes. That has involved building out CDN infrastructure and so in that sense Apple is already quite well prepared, whereas Disney in particular had to rush to acquire BAMTech, a spin-off from Major League Baseball, to acquire advanced streaming technology and capacity.

The point we are coming to is that Apple has not yet been linked to live sports, but there are signals that it intends to be so in future, rather than being confined like Netflix to TV shows and movies. That is a harder challenge which cannot be solved just by building out CDN capacity. While pre-recorded shows can readily be preloaded in caches across a CDN ahead of release, spreading the network load and ensuring that peaks can be met, live sports requires transmission of multiple streams in real time. When the number of simultaneous unicast streams reaches millions even the largest core networks fail to cope, even when there is enough access bandwidth, either fixed broadband or over the Radio Access Network (RAN) for cellular. No live sports event has yet to be delivered without any glitches at huge scale.

That is where the appeal of ATSC 3.0 with its hybrid support lies, since live sports could be diverted to broadcast. There is competition from the cellular camp in the latest version of LTE Broadcast, known as Further evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (FeMBMS), specified in 3GPP Release 14 in June 2017, which can also multicast down to the cell level. The key enhancement there is support for High Power High Tower (HPHT) transmitters alongside cellular cells, to create overlay networks able to provide the required coverage more cost effectively for popular linear content in both rural and urban areas. As was pointed out by analysis and forecasting site Rethink Technology Research recently, there is also support for greater Inter-Site Distance (ISD) at high spectral efficiency, with ability to allocate all of the eMBMS carrier bandwidth if required to create dedicated broadcast networks, which was limited to 60% of total capacity under the earlier eMBMS model. The new model also enables hybrid services where on demand content can still be unicast over the cellular network.

The relative appeal of digital terrestrial and cellular for mobile broadcasting varies between regions. In Europe one factor favoring cellular multicast is the transition of the 700 MHz spectrum from DTT to mobile broadband, which the European Union insists must be finished by 2022 at the latest. This is driving broadcasters towards mobile TV as an alternative to DTT. It is notable that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), along with several of its members, played a significant role in development of the latest enhancements to eMBMS, including the HTHP overlay model. The EBU is also working on QoS and security for mobile TV as part of an ongoing 3GPP Feasibility Study on Audio-Visual Service Production.

However it does require infrastructure investment and in the USA ATSC 3.0 is more advanced for mobile broadcast than DVB-T2 in Europe. That is why Sinclair and its joint venture ONE Media are so keen and indeed at NAB 2019 have just given more details about plans to launch ATSC 3.0 next-generation TV in the US.

Broadcasters including Sinclair, Nexstar, Fox Television Stations and NBCUniversal, along with industry consortiums including SpectrumCo and Pearl TV, have announced 40 US markets that will be getting ATSC 3.0 by the end of 2020. As part of the launch, in the absence of on-device SoCs, a smartphone with an ATSC 3.0 receiver and tuner dongle attached was on display, with an associated mobile app for changing channels.

Apple will have been watching with interest as Smith was arguing for on-device support to dispense with the need for a dongle, given that as its TV Plus evolves it is going to need some way of addressing live delivery. It may be that Apple goes for the cellular option in some regions and DTT in others, but either way it is a fair bet that like other smartphone makers it will embrace mobile multicast at last.

During his NAB address, Smith also called for modernization of “outdated” broadcast regulations to help legacy players compete with the tech giants, echoing similar sentiments in Europe. 

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