A Practical Guide To RF In Broadcast: The Future Of OTA TV In The US

At the moment it is far from clear exactly how the OTA TV landscape will evolve in the US over the next few years… the only sure thing is that we are in a period of rapid change.

Isn’t it curious that an industry dedicated to marching forward with ever-improving technology and more stimulating displays in homes and TV studios, has yet to find a better local news format than news – weather – sports? In so many subtle ways, the more TV broadcasting technology changes the more the content remains the same, from local live shot quotas and weather set chroma keys to operating room-clean anchor desks. Those of us behind the cameras know that most of the anchors are hiding shorts and canvas shoes behind the big desk. That part of TV anchorman Ron Burgundy movies is true.

Who remembers touring NAB exhibits when an earthshaking new TV technology was ‘the buzz’ of the floor? One company or another nearly always debuted a game changer, from incremental to enormous, which could be about as big and heavy as it was hugely expensive. Some new technology was from long-time industry leaders, and some came from companies few had heard of before. Some succeeded, some flopped. Last year’s coolest gear, like 3DTV displays and special glasses, could be bought dirt cheap in the back of some NAB Show exhibits after broadcasters dropped it. When smartphones and PC chips surpassed HDTV quality requirements while falling in price, off-the-shelf computer products bumped the production equipment expense pendulum in the opposite direction.

RF & Contour Maps

Over recent years broadcast TV audience shares have significantly diminished.  In 2021, Nielsen reported households spent more time watching streams than watching TV. In November 2022, broadcast TV accounted for about 25% of TV viewing time, compared to nearly 32% for cable. Nexstar recently reported 2Q23 ad revenues down $87 million USD from 2Q22.

Decades ago, a local affiliate could get a 50+ share on its local late news if it followed a huge network rating hit. Producers, programmers, and sales gurus can argue about why the broadcast TV audience is fractured, but transmitter engineers know that the number one, most obvious tangible advantage TV broadcasters have over all other industries is ‘Tall towers and high power.’

TV stations blanket a market with a strong signal that doesn’t necessarily end at the FCC contour line. The station contour map is more for checking for potential interference with nearby stations rather than to verify market coverage. Tall towers and high power are a substantially more efficient wireless digital communications strategy to move large amounts of one-to-many data, than using hundreds of one-to-one cell phone towers, spaced about a mile apart in metropolitan markets, to singularly move massive data to individual accounts.

The foundation of radio and TV broadcasting is RF, but more recently both delivery systems have shared audience delivery functions with satellites, cable, streams, and internet providers. The transition to digital ATSC 1.0 began in the late 1990s. In about 2006, the US federal government funded a very inexpensive consumer digital television adaptor device to convert the ATSC 1.0 digital signal to analog NTSC for viewing on a standard analog TV. Analog TV transmission in the US ended in 2009. In 2023, ATSC 3.0 stations continue signing on in smaller markets. The FCC and NAB want to set a mandatory ATSC 1.0 signoff in 5 years. What’s the plan? Where is the adaptor? Is mandating technology that doesn’t exist a good idea?

NextGen TV

NextGenTV is known as ATSC 3.0 when transmitted and NextGen TV when received, which seems very confusing to average people shopping for a new TV at Walmart. It’s two distinct marketing names for the same technology. When’s the last time you heard 5G called “New Radio, or NR,” which was its original name? Marketing issues like this are what can happen when brilliant engineers try marketing.

No Questions, No Problems

I worked for Sony Video Products Company in the late 1970s and one of its premier inventions at that time was the “Random Access Betamax”, aka Sony SLP-300 industrial Betamax with a wired RM-300 “Auto Search” control. It was the first commercial, random-access video playback device, and Fiat Motor Company bought a fleet of them with TV monitors on rolling kiosks for all their dealerships to help sell cars. As it turned out, sales prospects often lost interest waiting for the one-hour Betamax tape to shuttle between new Fiat models. Ho hum.

Watching TV is one of the safest and most passive human activities ever, short of napping. Viewers don’t put up with questions, wait times or special glasses. Tracking the whereabouts of the remote control is about the only viewing challenge worth the effort. Other than wireless remotes, interactive TV has failed every time it’s been tried. If TV content doesn’t appeal to a viewer, it can rapidly become a near-satisfying, near-sleep experience. Isn’t the idea of broadcasting to engage and communicate with the broadest audience?

Who remembers the so-called ‘second screen?’ The concept debuted at an NAB Show a decade ago that was designed for instant viewer feedback between a station’s website and a tablet or smart phone at home. The idea also touted occasional unique program-related content such as isolated camera shots. It was another ho hum because it required more thought and input than to dial a certain phone number to register an opinion. Interesting how reversing that technology translated into safe-distanced, news anchor and interview backhauls during the pandemic.

NextGen TV delivery can be linear, on demand, or a mixture of both. Without an internet connection, the viewer’s NextGen TV experience looks and works much like ATSC 1.0. What will people want to watch? The ultimate viewer interaction tool is the remote control, and it seems there are as many new ideas for NextGen TV apps and content as there are major US TV station groups. Each group appears to be developing its own ideas of how to monetize NextGen TV, mostly centered on the power and creativity of their broadcast app and targeted audiences.

Dreams, Opportunities, & Risks

At the 2023 NAB Show, the NAB announced a new task force partnership with the FCC called “The Future of Television,” to “help ensure a smoother roll-out of the next generation broadcast standard known as ATSC 3.0.” Sunsetting ATSC 1.0 signals is a key area of engagement for the task force, which appears more focused on regulatory issues than marketing. Some are saying the ATSC 1.0 sunset should occur in five years, and that then broadcasters can reuse that spectrum for other purposes. Nice dream, but not so fast. Spectrum is money.

For NextGen TV to succeed, there must be enough affordable NextGen TVs available for most viewers to adopt it. Currently, few TVs sets or tuners support NextGen TV and some of them don’t support all the latest updates within ATSC 3.0. Some blame the receiver shortfall on supply lines and chip shortages. A number of leading TV manufacturers have announced that they will not support NextGen TV in 2024 models. Some receivers and ‘NextGen TV home gateway devices’ have fizzled and returned customer’s money. Clearly, if mobile NextGen TV services succeed as anticipated, it’s going to take huge numbers of built-in NextGen TV receivers to provide data and entertainment services to the vehicle market, for example.

The good news is that you can’t buy a new TV or monitor without HDMI connections, and ATSC 3.0 is easy to convert to HDMI. A home gateway device can connect to almost anything by Wi-Fi or HDMI like a ROKU device. The problem with early home gateways is changing ATSC 3.0 DRM technologies and standards. DRM is more stable today, but the early product solutions couldn’t keep up with the changes and continue to make money.

Back when most markets offered only three or four commercial TV stations, TV call letters and outrageous ad rates were considered a ‘license to print money.’ Meanwhile, everyone watched TV for free. Those days are long gone, but some seasoned broadcasters remember the ‘good old days’ of printing money. Some emerging trends indicate the Broadcast Internet may be a completely different new way to monetize NextGen TV.

ATSC 3.0 is based on Internet Protocol (IP), so it can carry internet content or services simultaneously with TV program content. The beauty of the Broadcast Internet is that it can be networked between stations across the country making it available virtually anywhere. Several station groups are experimenting with it, and there is no reason groups can’t connect their Broadcast Internet networks and SFNs together to increase coverage. The Broadcast Internet is a one-to-many data distribution technology, as opposed to one-to-one cellular technology. Cellphone data will be used to confirm the success of Broadcast Internet downloads.

5G TV & DRM

The FCC recently granted special temporary authority (STA) for a broadcast TV station to try out 5G broadcasting on 5G Channel 108 (5.5 GHz). Station WWOO-LD, Boston will be the first 5G TV station in the US. WWOO is currently licensed for low power ATSC broadcasting on Channel 28. Because there are no devices able to receive 5G broadcast signals in UHF, the trial will use special 5G devices custom produced by Qualcomm specifically for these proof-of-concept tests in the 5 GHz, 5G band. These trials bear a striking resemblance to a number of field trials conducted in Europe over the last few years, trials which were deemed successful enough to prompt some European national broadcasters to progress towards wider adoption.

The beauty of 5G TV is that it is one-to-many, meaning it is as technically simple to simultaneously distribute content to the entire audience inside a major league sports venue as it is to broadcast it on TV. 5G TV is a one-way transmission moving content from the transmitter to the viewer, just like TV. When cellular data is transferred from the ISP to a cell phone user, somebody is charged for every bit of data sent to every phone. The cost-of-scale benefits between one-to-one private data compared to 5G public distribution are the opposite ends of the cost-per-bit spectrum.

Possibly the murkiest area in NextGen TV is Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM is available for ATSC 1.0 but little used. The ATSC recently said, “This security upgrade for television broadcasters is important since unprotected signals can easily be intercepted, “deep faked” and redistributed without permission.” Are deep faked memes from Bonanza or Batman a problem? In fact, NextGen TV needs serious content protection like all ISPs do, for private data security such as the Broadcast Internet for banking. DRM raises many questions about controlled live viewing and DVRs that TV viewers aren’t accustomed to asking.

In a world where free TV seems headed the way of fossil fuel, DRM can be a double-edged sword. Item 41 of the FCC’s THIRD REPORT AND ORDER AND FOURTH FURTHER NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULEMAKING, Adopted June 20, 2023, says “Next Gen TV broadcasters would be free to air the most desirable programming, including popular existing programming and new program offerings that could reasonably be provided in 1.0 format, only on their 3.0 primary programming stream. This could create two different tiers of free, OTA television service, which we find would not be in the public interest.” Me neither.

With NextGen TV activity, the Broadcast Internet, ML, AI, and quantum computing clearly in our futures, broadcast TV is poised to revise and redefine itself more than any time in its history. Prepare for change, hang on for the ride, and make the future happen as seamlessly as possible for viewers. Tall towers and high-power RF are the key to maintaining commercial and public broadcast TV’s future success and engineers keep them transmitting.

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