Public Broadcasters Raring to Go With ATSC 3.0

WASHINGTON—The hype around the next generation of television, or ATSC 3.0 as it is formerly known, continues to grow. With the standards nearly finalized and examples of it in use in South Korea, a number of broadcasters that have been experimenting with the standard are eager to share what they are cooking up for the viewers, and some of them took the stage to do so as part of a panel at the 2019 Public Media Summit put on by APTS.

“It’s not often that you get a chance to have the wholesale revision of a communication system, and so this is a really exciting time to try and do this and bring it forward for the industry here in the U.S. and perhaps other places of the world,” said Skip Pizzi, vice president, technology education and outreach for the NAB, who moderated the panel.

(From left to right) Fred Engel, Susi Elkins, Mary Mazur, John Hane and Skip Pizzi.

(From left to right) Fred Engel, Susi Elkins, Mary Mazur, John Hane and Skip Pizzi.

Pizzi was joined by four public broadcasters—Susi Elkins, director of broadcasting and general manager for WKAR in East Lansing, Mich.; Fred Engel, chief technology officer at Public Media North Carolina/UNC-TV; John Hane, president of Spectrum Co LLC; and Mary Mazur, general manager of Arizona PBS in Phoenix. Each broadcaster gave a brief presentation on what their station or company was working on.

This was the second year in a row that Elkins participated in the Public Media Summit, so she was able to showcase the progress that her station has made. This includes the launch of its experimental license for ATSC 3.0 prior to September this past fall and development of its Media Innovation Lab, scheduled for March. The station is currently trying to extend its license for ATSC 3.0 and move to a new channel as part of the repack.

Elkins also showed a demo of what ATSC 3.0 capabilities would add to a program like one of the station’s children’s show, in this case, an interactive graphic that corresponds with the show. The example was something that Elkins says her engineers were underwhelmed by, but she sees it differently.

“The thing to remember is that almost everything that we take for granted in a rich, enhanced, exciting media world is something we can’t really do yet,” she said. “So this looks sort of rudimentary what we’ve been able to do, but I think the backend side of it is revolutionary what it will allow us as broadcasters to do in terms of … our own ability to manage the user, viewer, listener experience.”

Engel elaborated on last week's announcement of a partnership between UNC-TV and a public safety research center that focuses on ATSC 3.0 and its uses for first responders and other public safety needs. Eyeing a three-year rollout, the partnership hopes to develop technology and standards that will help cut down on the time that it takes for first responders to receive emergency information.

“We have to know that ATSC 3.0 will work,” said Engel. “We cannot guess, we cannot assume. We have to test in a laboratory environment to make sure that this indeed will work. That’s the idea behind what the research center is.”

Mazur, whose station is part of the Phoenix Model Market that is testing ATSC 3.0 through a number of stations, shared some of what they are working on, including encrypted OTA services like sharing emergency info to first responders and conditional access features, as well as pinpoint broadcasting features like geo-targeted storytelling, addressable advertising and hyper local content.

Providing a bit of a different perspective was Hane. “My work is focused on building markets for our ATSC 3.0 capacity outside of the core business, which really, really excites me,” he shared.

Hane said that among his primary goals is to convince entities outside of broadcasting to invest in the development of the next gen standard and how it can be beneficial for them. “We have to make it easy for people to come in and take advantage of our ecosystem”

He also said that Spectrum has plans to launch ATSC 3.0 in more than two dozen markets by the start of the 2020 NAB Show. This, he hopes, will get set makers to take steps to supporting ATSC 3.0 by 2021. However, he acknowledges that goal is reliant upon the FCC completing its application form, which some speculate may not be ready until June.

“There are three or four markets that could happen by the end of the summer, but not if we don’t have an application form,” he explained.

While many of the things that people focus on with ATSC 3.0 are capabilities like 4K and immersive audio, this panel stressed what the standard could do for its public broadcasting audience.

“To me, this is just the beginning, a very good start to see could we actually use some of the content we already have, pre-position it for those without broadband and see if we can give them a user experience that those of us who can afford to pay for it have been enjoying for a long time” said Elkins.

“I think especially for the or the universities and the state networks, it’s this added value of these other potential services that will be available that could resonate with the legislatures, the university systems and eventually, we’re hoping in North Carolina, that through this it could save lives,” Engel shared.

For a comprehensive source of TV Technology’s ATSC 3.0 coverage, see ourATSC3 silo.