Playout & Transmission Global Viewpoint – January 2019

Is ATSC3.0 the TV of Tomorrow?

ATSC 3.0 proponents continue to remind the industry of coming new capabilities, opportunities and advantages. Yet, the consumer electronics industry remains quiet on implementing such features in new consumer televisions and related products. This article reviews the options and benefits 3.0 offers.

A TV of Tomorrow conference was recently held in NYC and I attended to satisfy my curiosity about the panels on ATSC3.0 versus 5G and other meetings on big data and learn more about the implications these developments might have on broadcasters.While not a technology conference, it was focused on digital advertising and offered several use cases as examples.

However, as those in the broadcast industry are acutely aware, in the end it comes back to what technologies are required and how are they integrated into broadcast systems and workflows?

There were two (2) panels dedicated to ATSC3.0 promoting its virtues and the benefits over ATSC1.0 and how it is a better technology than 5G.

Required versus Permitted

Let’s start with the fact that from the FCC perspective ATSC3.0 is only a polite suggestion with totally voluntary adoption by broadcasters. There is no FCC mandate to transmit 3.0 and the government certainly is not going to again hand out a billion dollars’ worth of free 3.0 TV tuners. Unlike when the industry transitioned from analog to digital, consumers are not required to buy new ATSC3.0 compliant TV’s. ATSC3.0 is not backwards compatible to 1.0 and broadcasters are mandated to maintain a free channel AND support 1.0. This is a pull versus push technology transition.

ATSC 3.0 standards cover a wealth of features and options. Click to enlarge.

ATSC 3.0 standards cover a wealth of features and options. Click to enlarge.

One panel vendor was selling an emergency alert service and claimed 3.0 was more robust and if all the cell services went off line due to a catastrophe, ATSC 3.0 would save the day. Hmmm, not sure I get that.The 3.0 broadcast chain still has the same technical requirements, which often come down to reliable electricity. Without power, neither broadcaster nor cell service provider will be on the air.

One station owner claimed the only interest their viewers had was 3.0’s 4K capability. Again, I remain unsure that consumers are running out and buying 4K TV’s, especially with so few ways to delivery 4K content.

Not surprising, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was filled with 8K displays. And NHK is now broadcasting 8K programing via satellite for several hours per day. Yet, few of today’s viewers even know what resolution of video they are watching. Ask the typical viewer and a likely response will be, “Sure, it’s 4K.” Most likely the images displayed are, at best, HD. The display of actual 4K video content is amazingly small.

Given these facts, perhaps it is not surprising that many industry pundits claim that 1080P HDR is sufficiently high quality for virtually all broadcast applications. Broadcasters would love this solution.

5G versus ATSC 3.0

Let’s get back to the 5G versus ATSC3.0 discussion.In reality, ATSC3.0 is a still a one way technology aka: broadcast. Most of the advanced services the technology proposes require a back channel. That means the internet.So, let’s do a comparison.

Comparison of key ATSC 3.0 versus 5G characteristics. Click to enlarge.

Comparison of key ATSC 3.0 versus 5G characteristics. Click to enlarge.

Comparison of key ATSC 3.0 versus 5G performance. Click to enlarge.

Comparison of key ATSC 3.0 versus 5G performance. Click to enlarge.

One of the conference’s panels included representatives from; a broadcast station, AVIS Car Rental, an EAS equipment provider and the FCC.I was surprised to learn that, in cooperation with a broadcaster, AVIS is testing ATSC3.0 as a method to push video/audio content to some of their cars.Yet, this experimental service still has the same problem of requiring a back channel. In this test, the vehicle still uses mobile wireless for the return/request data.

The FCC representative reemphasized that ATSC3.0 will not be mandated and therefore is a voluntary choice by station owners. She was also very clear that free TV remains a broadcaster’s requirement and consumers could not be forced to purchase an ATSC3.0 device.

Going forward, stations must continue to support ATSC1.0. This requirement can be met by contracting with another TV station to broadcast the station’s 1.0 channel. Another noteworthy comment was that ATSC3.0 is not backward compatible to ATSC1.0 devices.

Other Delivery Methods

At a different industry event, I asked a former network executive, “Why should broadcasters support 3.0?” His position was that broadcasters need to stay competitive with OTT and cable. Yet, ATSC3.0 more resembles a satellite-delivered service. It may require a set top box and the box needs an internet connection.

What about connectivity to other devices; a computer, tablet, phone and streaming interfaces including; TIVO, Roku, Chromecast, Fire Stick, etc.? These boxes don’t have tuners or antenna inputs. I expect that device manufacturers will need a pretty compelling argument to add those capabilities to their devices.

Traditional TV viewing still takes place on a large screen, which can support multiple delivery services; OTA, gaming, cable, satellite, even streaming content.While TV sets still have a tuner, (an FCC requirement) that too may change. Apple did remove the headphone jack from the latest iPhone. Once the tuner is removed from a TV set, it becomes a monitor, and no longer subject to FCC reception specifications.

Big Data

Another topic at the television conference was big data. Data is a two way kind of thing.The viewer sends data to request content, transact or communicate.But content producers and delivery services want to capture much more information; like viewing habits, who is watching, stickiness, etc. This requires supportive technology.

How will Big Data affect the rollout or use of ATSC 3.0?

How will Big Data affect the rollout or use of ATSC 3.0?

The data included in the program needs to be formatted, and embedded in the delivery stream, the upstream data needs to be parsed in real time for different masters.If this is a VOD request, there’s a workflow and set of processes. If it’s a stream request, a different workflow must be initiated.On the delivery side, because ATSC3.0 is a broadcast technology, how does it get channelized for individual user requests to a large audience? A 5G delivery technology doesn’t have that issue.

I like the TV of Tomorrow concept. And while the entertainment industry looks for next generation ideas and focuses on the monetization aspects of TV, there will always be a technology underpinning as the enabler. Automation was driven by advertising insertion and multi market ad selection, not programming.The demands of multichannel and multi-time zone program playout required the development and use of automation technology. It was advertising that drove the technology.

While ATSC3.0 is certainly part of tomorrow’s delivery landscape, I remain unsure what achievable benefits it contributes and if viewers and the consumer electronics industry will support the rollout.

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Editor’s Note: Gary Olson has written a book on IP technology, 'Planning and Designing the IP Broadcast Facility – A New Puzzle to Solve', which is available from major book sellers.

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