OTA Versus OTT: What is the Difference?

Over The Air broadcasters are no longer the only game in town when it comes to delivering content to viewers. A whole new range of competitors and technologies are lining up to bring content to viewers.

This is not another acronym article, but before we begin let me define a few terms.

  • OTA – Over The Air, aka plain old television broadcast (ATSC 1.0).
  • OTT – Over The Top – Using broadband internet delivered by cable, satellite or IPTV to receive programs from alternate providers like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.
  • ATSC 3.0 – ATSC3.0 is the OTA response to OTT but functioning more like satellite services as a hybrid service using broadband and mobile carriers for the return path.
  • LTE (4G) – This is the data layer on mobile devices and 5G. It provides more bandwidth and is on the horizon. Voice and SMS are still 3G services and LTE/4G/5G are separate radios in the mobile device. An effort is being made to offer LTE/5G independent of telephone services. This would be great for tablets and other non-telephone devices needing wireless Internet access.
  • Wi-Fi 802.11ac is the newest Wi-Fi standard in the ever increasing bandwidth battle to cut the cord. This is coupled with the race between carriers to provide the most public hotspots to service the mobile users’ thirst to stream 4K to their phones.   

New competition for broadcasters

Technically speaking Wi-Fi and cellular are over the air technologies. But for the purposes of this discussion they will be considered interlopers. Industry purists will only look at traditional television transmission as OTA. So is ATSC3.0 an attempt by broadcasters to give the cable cutters access to their free content in new and improved resolutions? Or is it a way to capitalize on being able to deliver OTT products ie Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in addition to their regular programming? And if to request ATSC3.0 on demand content needs a separate internet connection then isn’t this just OTT and then what does ATSC3.0 offer? While our cellphone service still suffers, carriers like Verizon are looking at “wireless FIOS” which is an interesting play on words since the “F” in FIOS is “Fiber”.

5G the next RF path

More bandwidth, not better coverage, just more bandwidth. There have been a number of interesting efforts to bring ATSC broadcast onto mobile devices and computers. It just doesn’t seem to be getting traction. As broadcasters are challenged to produce and deliver programming at higher resolutions and transition their infrastructure while waiting for the industry to make up its mind about IP, UHD, and the family of K’s, upgrading their transmitters to ATSC3.0 when their upgrade to digital is barely depreciated with no market insight does not seem practical.

The TV manufacturers are still hurting from their 3D adventure while trying to sort out the K’s, UHD and HDR. Now they need ATSC3.0. Is this an embedded technology or does the consumer add yet another STB and compete for one of the HDMI inputs on the set? Just when OTT access is becoming a feature with the TV, here comes another box.

ATSC3.0 is a suite of standards

So what does that mean to manufacturers? More protocols, more standards, more software development and less interoperability. Let’s not forget the Grand Alliance for HD, 36 approved standards and the introduction of the term “acceptable latency”. Don’t’ get me started on that – there is no such thing as acceptable latency.

So is ATSC3.0 really new and improved? Or is it the broadcaster’s way of cord cutting, a way to end run the Cable/Satellite/IPTV guys? But wait, it still needs an Internet backchannel, so is that really cord cutting? And if the offering is interactive or the transactional delivery of content, then an entire backend infrastructure is needed to support that- and it doesn’t exist. Ahh – Opportunity! Actually a well-known broadcast engineer showed me a transaction service for OTA a number of years ago – he was way ahead of himself.

What about the manufacturers?

This is just adding more confusion to product development decisions. Broadcast and production manufacturers are in business case hell!. File based- Introducing IMF (not Impossible Mission – Yet), Cloud, IP (all of them), SDI 4K & 8K. Will ATSC3.0 require re-tooling or new product development effort? Is it a new delivery format?

The conversations I have with broadcasters and production organizations is how long can they wait before they have to buy something without the nagging concern it’s wasted capital. Manufacturers are stymied in producing next gen products and the engineers are wondering how to make it all work together.

The consumer is equally confused and the “Holy Grail” of single input, single control viewing seems to remain elusive. I was at a friend’s place and her 4 year old wanted to watch something on TV, I am pretty clever sometimes and offered to set it up. It was politely suggested I let my friend do it, it was her system and not so straight forward.

OK, a little nostalgia, rabbit ears and roof antennas, takes me to my formative years installing antennas on chimneys and aligning to the transmitter. I was fortunate growing up in NY, it was just point at the Empire State Building – Everyone had their antennas there.

Personally, I’d rather see concerted efforts go into improving the quality of program delivery. I see the same pixelization and freezing from OTA signals that I get from cable, which means it’s from the program origination source. ATSC3.0 won’t fix that. 

Editor’s Note: Gary Olson has a book on IP technology, “Planning and Designing the IP Broadcast Facility – A New Puzzle to Solve”, which is available at bookstores and online.

Editor’s Note: Gary Olson has a book on IP technology, “Planning and Designing the IP Broadcast Facility – A New Puzzle to Solve”, which is available at bookstores and online.

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