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ATSC 3.0 Brings Flexibility of IP to Broadcast

In part 1, the author discussed how the upcoming SBE Ennes Workshop at the 2016 NAB Show will focus on ATSC 3.0 and the benefits of the standard’s “physical layer.” In this second part, Mr. Baumgartner discusses how ATSC 3.0 fits in the IP environment and the regulatory and advertising implications, as well as how local stations could handle the transition from 1.0 to 3.0.

LAS VEGAS—The hardest part of the ATSC 3.0 proposed broadcast standard to get one’s head around is probably the IP transport piece. Over-the-air TV, as it stands, might have its distribution network issues, but they pale when compared to the Internet’s limitations. The simple fact is that we watch a lot of television—something on the order of five hours a day per-person

This is order of magnitudes more bits per person than the entire Internet’s current capacity. About half of that is OTA television viewing. Some rural states receive 50 percent of all TV directly off air, while only 5 percent of viewers in the New York City market receive their TV directly off air. The other 50 to 95 percent watch via cable, satellite or telco. While there may be hundreds of “cable networks” and other video sources, only a bit more than half of programming consumed comes from sources other than OTA broadcast.

While the bulk of all Internet traffic is video by a wide margin, it is still a very small amount of the total video consumed. Video-on-demand from OTT sources like NetFlix, Youtube and Hulu, as well as the broadcast networks, is being consumed on devices that can be used nearly anywhere—including a lot of places OTA TV doesn’t reach. Internet access and capacity is growing, consuming more RF “wireless” spectrum and reaching farther into the corners of the world. This is the gap ATSC 3.0 fills.

Only a sliver of TV viewing is delivered via IP and the IP networks are a long way from having the capacity to deliver all of the TV consumers watch with the quality they expect. Right now, IPTV is a bit of a miracle; it’s a bundle of buffers, sparingly supported multicast protocols, switches, edge servers, and best effort adaptive streaming techniques. It is well understood that watching an Internet video may or may not be a good experience. Reflect on how the far rarer “rain fades” on direct-to-home satellite are considered by many viewers as an “insufferable” impairment.

ATSC 3.0 combines the best of broadcast and IP capabilities

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The obvious way to fix IP distribution is make a lot more of it. The other way is to “broadcast” the highly universally consumed video directly to “gateways” in the IP network that combine the regular Internet traffic with the broadcast high-capacity pipes. Like most people, you probably have in the last decade or so purchased and replaced a series of faster better and more wireless routers that connect your home local area network (LAN) to the wider world via an Internet service provider’s wide area network (WAN).

Your local network probably supports an ever growing world of wired Ethernet devices and both a 2.5 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi local wireless network that pretty much covers your home or apartment.

Your home is filling up with “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices like thermostats and security cameras that connect via Wi-Fi. Add printers, scanners, tablets, smartphones, DVRs, games, smart TVs, and even early generation TV appliances like SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun, Dish’s Slingboxes, etc., to the home network through the gateway and your devices can view and interact with OTA TV and each other at home and sometimes away via the Internet.

If you desire Ultra High Definition TV, the limitation on your system is the connectivity via your ISP and OTA. If you and a few million others want to watch the Super Bowl in UHDTV, the Internet would collapse. Likewise, current OTA TV is of no help because it lacks the requisite bandwidth and support for the high-quality, high-efficiency codecs required.

This is the era of first adopters when it comes to home LANs supporting video, multiple screens, remote DVRs, and the like. One can do a lot, but the integration of all of the often incompatible pieces and the still clumsy and disparate user interfaces makes this more of a science experiment than a friendly, convenient, standard, universal platform that anyone can use. ATSC 3.0 would move this forward dramatically, simply because the platform would need to be easy to install and use and is universal.

With current OTA TV, you connect rabbit ears or a coax from an attic or outdoor antenna to each TV set. With ATSC 3.0, you connect your new ~$250 household gateway/router that probably includes some storage and DVR features to that OTA antenna. Now every IP device in your home’s LAN coverage area has access to everything OTA and Internet (including any “walled garden” of content your ISP might supply). The 80-inch media room TV has something to watch, the portable devices do, too, and you can control DVRs and big screens from the devices that allow you to interact with things like electronic program guides and media search engines.

Certainly, there will be ATSC 3.0 dongles with an F-connector on one end and an HDMI connector on the other end that will allow those older flat screens to continue to receive basic OTA TV. In that respect, converting grandma from an OTA TV to ATSC 3.0 is fairly inexpensive and easy. On the other hand, it may be clumsy at first with maybe yet another remote control to deal with. This is nothing compared to 2009 when we replaced glass CRTs, gave out $20 converter coupons and encouraged millions to migrate to MVPDs basic service to avoid the effort and investment that DTV required. In this case, the digital transition is history, we have flat screens and devices… and all that is missing is a means to connect broadcast TV to them.

Devices that can only receive ATSC 3.0 without any backchannel will exist in the same way that you can still get a cellphone that is just a cellphone, without any data or display. For most people, ATSC 3.0 involves replacing that gateway router and watching as new devices almost mysteriously incorporate ATSC 3.0 features.

While ATSC 3.0 is the natural progression of improved technology, it also makes a fundamental change to the traditional business model. For more than a half century manufacturers made TVs, consumers bought them, and broadcasters created content that viewers liked to watch, which led advertisers to buy access to that audience. Let’s walk through what the stakeholders get from ATSC 3.0 and what they have to give up or invest to get there, and why ATSC 3.0 is a win-win for the regulators.

· First, the poorest, most feeble, and those least interested in paying among us should have access to broadcast TV. All but the poorest among us can expect to be able to watch “free” TV.

· Second; emergency warnings and life and property saving information is to be distributed on that platform.

· And thirdly, to the degree that education is a goal of our society and TV is the most economical and wide-reaching platform for learning, we expect that TV will support some level of arts and education.

From the viewpoint of the least interested in TV among us, ATSC 3.0 poses a small price and likely will allow some ATSC 1.0 “lighthouse” stations to operate for some time. ATSC 3.0 also represents a step forward in public safety and warning communications, but most of all, ATSC 3.0’s improved (OFDM) transmission capability provides a bigger reach than ATSC 1.0, which increases the population free-to-air TV can reach; and that is a good thing from the FCC’s point of view.

Regulators are not being asked for anything—in particular, spectrum—for the transition. The FCC will have to first approve the transmission of ATSC 3.0 before anything can happen, but there is little chance that the FCC will object. There is more of a chance that they will move to expedite the transition to ATSC 3.0 as a way to ease the impact of the present-day spectrum reallocation process and the conversion of some UHF TV channels to wireless use.

ATSC 3.0 offers larger payloads and has more efficient video coding. If that was all there was to it, ATSC 3.0 would seem the answer to the demand for more spectrum for the carrier’s RANs (Radio Access Networks, like LTE). One could issue a bunch of converter boxes and dongles and restructure OTA TV broadcast to occupy half the channels it now does; certainly any number of people contemplate the efficacy of this scenario. It’s not ridiculous, but currently the FCC doesn’t seem inclined to use this bullet, but rather to simply encourage ATSC 3.0 as an option that broadcasters can employ. Timing is the issue. Repack, at least this round, isn’t going to wait for ATSC 3.0’s expanded capacity to be available.

Whether there will be legislation that requires cellphones to be able to view free OTA TV, or receive FM radio for that matter, is yet to be played out. Voters pushed Congress and thus the FCC, to regulate loud commercials—they may also demand their free TV.

The consumer electronics industry has historically been asked or required to make products with capabilities that didn’t have an intrinsic monetary value to the manufacturer; take into account the All Channel Receiver Act of 1962, a.k.a., the “UHF mandate,” which required television sets to include UHF channels 14-69, even though there were few UHF broadcast stations and most consumers had little interest in what they had to offer.

The CE industry is international and very price sensitive… but they are also very opportunity-oriented. In this case, the CE industry is ahead of the curve, already delivering televisions and peripherals that would benefit from ATSC 3.0, which will enable features that they can monetize. For the CE world, ATSC 3.0 represents opportunity with minimal mandates or risks.

But let’s say that a broadcaster does want to improve their bottom line. As mentioned above, the station’s distribution network can be improved markedly with the addition of SFN boosters and DAS systems; “more viewers on more devices” is a profitable broadcast mantra. The transmission system represents a small piece of many stations’ operating and capital costs. Although for most stations, ATSC 3.0 will come with far less expense than the DTV transition of 2009, it is also easy to spend more on SFN boosters with ATSC 3.0 than the single transmitter many ATSC 1.0 stations now employ.

The introduction of ATSC 3.0 also requires a “transition plan” for all of the stakeholders. The most likely scenario is that stations cooperate to operate some legacy ATSC 1.0 “lighthouse stations” to avoid obsoleting the current OTA TVs in the field. Throughout the world, the amount of UHF spectrum for broadcast TV is being reduced in favor of more spectrum for wireless services. The VHF spectrum is not so hotly contested, so a likely scenario is for lighthouse stations to set up temporary ATSC 1.0 “condos” where upwards of six or so stations occupy a given VHF ATSC 1.0 multiplex, even if only at standard definition levels.

Clearly, the FCC is predisposed to the idea as part of the spectrum repacking referred to earlier. It seems likely that regulations will allow this kind of transition without penalties in the “must-carry” environment. In any case, a market can start with one or a few ATSC 3.0 stations, converting and building out additional facilities and boosters over time, without significantly interrupting current programming or business. Stations and markets will determine the specifics and potentially each one is different.

Another part of ATSC 3.0’s IP piece that is difficult to grasp and internalize is that it can materially change the advertising business model. Internet advertising has leveraged big data and an “advanced advertising ecosystem,” to connect sponsors with consumers that will buy their products, without wasting bandwidth (and thus money) advertising to people who will not. This is what makes Internet advertising so powerful, efficient and lucrative… even with its limited reach.

By comparison, the current broadcast TV advertising landscape is less efficient and less effective, but has incredibly better reach. What ATSC 3.0 does, is carry the same kind of messaging power that Internet advertising has into the TV experience. There is an incentive for viewers to participate that is similar to a loyalty card. As a consumer, you’d expect special bargains and offers, not to mention special content, all in exchange for allowing your TV to know who is watching what, when and accepting the specialized content.

In time ATSC 3.0 TV will morph into a more interactive device in conjunction with your handheld devices. If the technology grows as fast as smartphones with their array of apps and sensors, it is hard to predict where this goes. Gateways, TVs, devices, and the ecosystem will certainly become smarter and more capable with time. Broadcasters are obviously interested in what ATSC 3.0 can do their bottom lines.

Mr Baumgartner is TV Product Manager for Nautel and an SBE Ennes Trustee. For more information on SBE Ennes Workshops, click here.