Playout & Transmission Global Viewpoint – August 2018

Is ATSC in Your 5-Year Plan?

ATSC 3 is on a fast-track to align with repack, and your station will likely be transmitting ATSC 3 in the next five years. What’s your station’s transition plan?

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) presented a recent, invitation-only, Executive Webcast titled “ATSC 3.0 Transition Strategies.” The webcast speaker was SMPTE Fellow and Eagle Hill consulting’s John McCoskey. His goal was to share options and build strategies for what to do, how to do it, and when to make the transition to ATSC 3.0. The following is an executive summary of the webcast, without the dot 0s.

Myriad factors make ATSC 3 unique. One is that the FCC approved the new standard on a voluntary basis, which wasn’t exactly how ATSC 1.0 came into being. We’re not going to review the old transition plan, but it had a deadline, the FCC enforced it, and it worked. As ATSC 3 moves forward in the TV marketplace, there is no defined sunset for ATSC 1. McCoskey said he believes the FCC is “leaning towards stations broadcasting in both 1 and 3 in five years.”

Another factor is that every local TV station is unique. To this day, FOX and ABC can't agree with NBC, CBS and PBS on which HDTV format is best. That’s okay though, as 720p and 1080i are both recognized in ATSC 1 and average viewers won't see a difference. ATSC 3 offers local stations the opportunity to become a significantly more unique viewing experience for all viewers. McCoskey suggested “It’s really a business enabler more than a new technology."

Six Key Features

In the webcast he outlined “six key features” of ATSC 3 from the ATSC’s perspective: Better pictures, audience measurement abilities, addressable targeted ads, immersive audio, advanced emergency alerting and mobility. “There’s a lot of technical buckets that ATSC 3 fills,” he said. “One is providing more digital bandwidth through much better efficiency and the ability to squeeze a lot more services into a 6 MHz channel than you can with today’s ATSC 1 standard.”

The ATSC 1 standard is 20-25 years old and can’t take advantage of today’s advances in computing technology, compression, and modulation. ATSC 3 can leverage that technology and it can translate to more viewers. ATSC 3 doesn’t improve the signal coverage footprint, but it does provide a much more robust signal that offers significantly improved building penetration and more stable communication with mobile devices. It also allows for customization based on location, profiles or both.

Figure 1, comparing DTV and mobile industry milestones. Courtesy SMPTE. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1, comparing DTV and mobile industry milestones. Courtesy SMPTE. Click to enlarge.

ATSC 3 is IP

“The ATSC 3 is the key that gives the broadcast industry seamless integration with broadband technologies because ATSC 3 is very IP-based,” McCoskey said. “That also opens the real possibility of IP datacasting” to non-TV IP networks, and it adds many significant alerting advantages over ATSC 1 such as richer, more targeted alerts, content and ‘Wake up’ signaling, all of which interests emergency managers.

The comparison shown in Figure 1 was introduced by Sinclair Broadcast Group at an earlier ATSC discussion. It compares DTV technology to what the mobile industry calls 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. Using that comparison, ATSC 1 was like 2G technology, going from analog to digital just as mobile operators did, but very much the same architecture as the existing analog services. “That architecture really was enhanced by the DVB-T2 standards that allowed them to take a technology step forward on modulation and encoding, but still not IP-based and still very traditional architecture.

We took a step in 2016 to ATSC 3, which is more of a 4G technology. But ATSC 3 today, and the way most people are implementing, is still on that legacy architecture. It has shifted to IP, but the overall designs of stations and distribution networks is the same as it has been even since the analog days.”

5G in the DTV environment looks at ATSC 3 technology more holistically, as a piece of an IP network. Rolling in the concept of virtualization, software-defined networking, and network function virtualization into DTV is what will unlock the core opportunities in ATSC 3. Right now, “We’re kind of on the cusp of implementing in the 4G realm and moving to 5G.”

Why Engineers Love 3.0

"It gets rid of a 20-year old technology, it’s IP-based, the video compression is state-of-the-art, and you can compete with what’s happening on the broadband side such as UHD, HDR, WCG and HFR. All these things we’ve not been able to do in broadcast before,” said the presenter.

ATSC 3’s immersive audio meets cinema-grade standards and data transmission rates can be increased up to about a 25-26 Mbps. ATSC 3 gives stations the flexibility to customize the balance of trade-offs between bandwidth capacity, reach and penetration that works best for a specific market. Few will allocate their bandwidth exactly similar. Also, the ATSC 3 modulation technique provides remedies in both mobile and indoor environments that remain a challenge for ATSC 1.

Currently several markets are testing ATSC 3 transmissions, each with its own interests, objectives and goals. Additional information on some of those tests are in the articles listed below.

Sinclair: Next Stop for ATSC 3.0 Testing is Dallas

ATSC 3.0 Field-Testing Begins in Cleveland

Phoenix to Become ATSC 3.0 Test Market

What We Now Know

The big 4 O&O plans are unclear. Station groups are taking sides but not all decisions are final, yet. PBS stations are looking at that added capacity for member-only content (11:24) and education applications. They are also looking at the possibility to generate revenue with datacasting, audience and member involvement, and exploiting the enhanced public safety opportunities.

The new FCC Order for ATSC 3 adopted last November says that stations operating in ATSC 3 must provide at least one free over-the-air video stream. The free stream does not have to be HD. A single free SD stream meets the requirement. A station can fulfill its obligation under the new rules using a very small portion of their TV channel for actual television. In other words, there are tremendous new business opportunities for local broadcasters other than broadcasting TV.

Under the Order, ATSC 3 stations are required to simulcast at least one channel in ATSC 1. Unless a station has dual licenses, dual TV channels and separate transmission systems to support them, it will have to channel-share with a local ATSC 1 station to broadcast the required simulcast. That's where things get a bit sticky and simulcasting will likely become a very hot local issue. There's quiet speculation that some PBS stations may become local ATSC 1 lighthouse stations to help the industry transition and generate new revenue. Nothing of significance has been announced, yet.

Action Steps

McCoskey outlined an action plan for all stations. The plan begins with researching your local market. Who needs partners? Who is moving quickly? Who is waiting? What are your local competitors doing with their station’s repack projects? What are your local PBS affiliate's plans for repack, ATSC 1 and/or ATSC 3?

John McCoskey is CTO/COO at Eagle Hill Consulting and presenter for the SMPTE ATSC 3.0 webcast.

John McCoskey is CTO/COO at Eagle Hill Consulting and presenter for the SMPTE ATSC 3.0 webcast.

The second step is to evaluate and update your strategic plan by making ATSC 3 part of your 5-year plan. Add specific ATSC 3 initiatives to revenue and mission strategies. Consider new audience and member services, and how that could affect operations and budget. Is your board of directors ready to take on serious ATSC 3 discussions?

Your next step is a tactical plan. Early planning is critical to take full advantage of ATSC 3. If your station is involved in repack, account for 3.0 and repack together, don’t do it twice. Consider adding, at the station’s expense, vertical polarization and the cost of a new antenna, tower work and added power for ATSC 3 characteristics and V-pol, and a physical plant that can handle the increased power and heat loads. It will cost less if you do it all once.

Your tactical implementation plan is crucial. Is your repack plan ATSC 3 ready? Have you budgeted for unreimbursed repack improvements necessary for ATSC 3? If not repacking, does your next transmitter facility upgrade plan include ATSC 3?

Tactical implementation includes all the non-technical teams at your station fully understanding the opportunities and implications of ATSC 3 as it relates to their jobs. Do you have a plan to educate them? Are formal, change-management strategies and plans in place station-wide?

As McCoskey so elegantly stated, “IT is the future of every business, and IT skills can be learned. Broadcast is a mentality.” You, the broadcast engineer, are the default local ATSC 3 expert. Your station needs your help to identify and investigate all the new options and opportunities ATSC 3 offers to make the most educated plans for continued business success.

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