Getting to ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV promises to be the most challenging of migrations for broadcasters, the consumer electronics industry and viewers. Yet, if everyone cooperates with unified game plan, the benefits to all can be tremendous.
The 2018 NAB Show was the “iffiest” show in years because it seemed that attendees and exhibitors had more unresolved points and questions than answers. Nearly every visitor arrived with a personal list of questions in search of direction, but not everyone left confident they had seen the map to the future.
For OTA broadcasters, these professionals wanted to return home with real-world answers to the persistent questions about television's technical issues. Topics needing answers might include repack schedule, ATSC 3.0, 4K, 8K, IP production, backhaul and streaming, and anything else a TV station engineering department might have in its capital budget this year or next.
The sparkle and hype of 4K and 8K imagery sure looks tempting to station owners and general managers until they remember nobody ever paid extra to run a HD commercial. Advertisers pay for eyeballs. And while flashy new technology always captures eyes at trade shows, the fact remains that much of that is sizzle and not all of it is reality for those who make TV happen every day. Sometimes, simpler is better.
The visitors and exhibitors I spoke with agreed that 1080p60 with HDR and WCG is where TV broadcasting is most likely headed. The visual improvement impresses everyone at any distance and the format can be broadcast with minimal impact on bandwidth compared to 4K. That approach leaves more station bandwidth available for profitable digital subchannels and data.
Repack issues are far from resolved. According to manufacturers and tower owners, not all repacked stations have announced their plans. Stations in Phase 10 have until July 2020 to repack, and some stations in the later phases are apparently still planning. One prominent national tower owner told me that only about half of the TV stations leasing space on its towers who are repacking have notified the tower company of their plans.
Repack construction phases as displayed from a 2017 GatesAir IEEE presentation. A copy of an industry-prepared ATSC 3.0 Implementation and Transition Guide is available at: http://info.gatesair.com/atsc-3.0-guide-download. Click to enlarge image.
Stations in Phase 1 are moving forward. They may well be the lucky ones, because the backlog has just begun. Word on the exhibit floor was that worries remain about the availability of tower crews qualified to work on tall TV towers. That issue may get worse as the repack tower marathon wears on. There are also concerns about overworked tower crews making dangerous mistakes as deadline-sensitive projects grind on over the next two years.
On the manufacturing side, vendors worry about the availability of the raw materials needed to build antennas and feedline. One RF manufacturer told me their order-to-delivery time for copper has doubled, and that delay is expected to grow. If you haven’t planned and ordered everything for any Phase by now, you may already be too late.
The DTV transition was easy. Viewers could get a free or cheap box to convert DTV to NTSC. The ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV transition will be more difficult. While ATSC 3.0 is incompatible with ATSC 1.0 receivers, NextGen won’t necessarily make all older TV sets obsolete. An ATSC 3.0 gateway receiver was first demonstrated at the 2016 NAB Show and it can feed existing tablets, mobile devices and smart TVs with Wi-Fi signals.
The most knowledgeable TV industry leaders seem to agree that ATSC 3.0, with all its personalized bells and whistles, is where the industry is headed. However, other TV professionals, perhaps not so far up the academic ladder, subscribe to the couch-potato theory, TV viewers don’t want to interact with their TV set, and they like their privacy. People interact with computers. Viewers watch TV.
As the 2018 NAB Show was in progress, new privacy questions were being raised by Facebook chairman and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg's, congressional testimony about the sales of personal data. That probably was not the best news for internet-connected NextGen because ATSC 3.0 can’t do all of its magic unless users provide personal data.
Iffy Host Facility Plan
The pinnacle of NextGen is the transition plan, or more specifically the lack of one. However, there were rumblings on the exhibit floor of one idea that could make sense in some markets. At this moment, its nearness or distance from reality depends on who you ask.
Mark Hand is CEO of Public Media Company and leader of the Public Media Venture Group, a coalition of 24 public media television licensees representing 81 stations. He told us the Group is specifically interested in becoming a 1.0 Lighthouse, now dubbed Host Facility, for commercial stations transitioning to 3.0. The plan won’t work for every PBS TV station, but those who can spare 1.0 bandwidth might find an easy and reliable new temporary revenue stream.
The idea is for the FCC to grant waivers allowing public stations to temporarily carry commercials on their digital subchannels. The commercial station’s ATSC 1.0 PSIP would be assigned to a public TV ATSC 1.0 digital subchannel so viewers would not notice the change. Hand says the FCC is in the process of collecting comments.
The Host Facility concept would be a local decision for public stations, while commercial stations may decide as a group. Some PBS stations are already loaded with subchannels with no room to spare. It’s too early to say, but at least it’s a plan and the revenue would go to public television.
According to Patrick McFadden, Associate General Counsel at NAB, the decisions will be up to individual stations. He said “Commercial stations should find a station and take the leap.” The FCC’s involvement will end with the waivers and be handled similar to channel sharing. Station agreements will be private contracts that must address all sorts of liability issues from transmission facilities to nudity and profanity. “Law firms involved in the incentive auction probably have a good template,” McFadden suggested. As an engineer, my first question is, who gets keys to the transmitter building?
On April 19th, the broadcast tower for Missouri State University public TV station KOZK, in Webster County, MO collapsed. University spokeswoman Suzanne Shaw said the workers were installing structural support to accommodate new equipment associated with a channel change. Source: more information and images Springfield News-Leader newspaper. Click to enlarge.
At this moment, PBS has a slightly less enthusiastic take. An email response from Aparna Kumar, Senior Director, Corporate Communications at PBS said “We don’t have information to share about this at this time. On background, I can say that there is no television market that we know of where there is a known plan for transition at this point, either on the commercial or non-commercial side.”
The answer to the ATSC 3.0 transition is illusive. Sinclair is in transition test trials in Dallas, Pearl has a market model in Phoenix and WRAL is on the air. Transitioning to an ATSC 3.0 model illustrates how new answers can lead to new questions.
Here’s a question: If a Host Facility transmitter fails, the how much will the pressure on the transmitter engineer be multiplied? Of course, infinity multiplied by any number greater than zero is still infinity, so nothing much in the lives of transmitter engineers will really change.