Never say never

For years, analog NTSC just chugged along with relatively simple routing and switching requirements. The future-proofing challenge when laying out a new router installation was simply to ensure that the matrix can expand as needed to accommodate additional sources and destinations. But television is a high tech industry, and as we have learned over the past decade or two, the rate of technological change, especially in high technology industries, seems to increase in geometric proportions.

Not that long ago, a 270Mb/s station infrastructure was deemed to be more than adequate for routing and distribution of any program content. But in the high tech world in which we live and work, analog evolved into digital, parallel interfaces into serial and composite digital into component digital. Analog television became DTV, and SD — even in news operations — is transforming into HD.

Feeding the bandwidth hog

You were fully prepared for Feb. 17, so whether your switchover occurred then or is yet to occur between now and June 12, you've essentially weathered the DTV transition. You find yourself comfortable with that new 1.5Gb/s plant only to discover that the latest chatter is about 3Gb/s data rates, and manufacturers are pushing 3Gb/s system infrastructures. Ah, you think, that's for production and post facilities dealing with 1080p/60 content. It has nothing to do with the broadcaster, right? After all, the highest format levels specified by ATSC are 1080p/24 and 1080i/30, and they can move comfortably through a 1.5Gb/s router. And what would you do with 1080p/60 content anyway? Forget MPEG-2, and if you could transmit it today, you'd better get that analog channel back because at double the bandwidth of 1080i/30, it certainly would not fit in your existing 6MHz pipe.

But, hold on. Let's take another look at how this bandwidth hog is evolving, what the applications for it might be and how that might affect the broadcaster. First and foremost we have to recognize that every broadcaster is in a mortal battle for eyeballs. That living room screen not only hosts broadcast channels but also cable and satellite channels, set-top box delivered movies, video games, DVD and Blu-ray players, and time-shifted DVR content. As in any market, the players are always looking for a way to differentiate their product, to get that initial edge on the competition.

This is a game in which the over-the-air broadcaster is at a bandwidth disadvantage. The broadcaster is limited by regulation to a single assigned 6MHz pipe. The competition, on the other hand, by delivering content via a dedicated set-top box or player, controls the interface to that living room display. By doing so, they can be bandwidth-agnostic as long as the output matches some form of input on the display device.

The typical display devices or television receivers that are sold today for large-screen applications, such as living room, rec room and media room use, now accept 1080p/60. Just look through the weekly ads in the Sunday paper, and you will be hard pressed to spot a large-screen receiver that isn't capable of 1080p/60. Leading the popularization parade of this format are nonbroadcast media such as video games and Blu-ray players.

Moreover, with cable and satellite services always sniffing around for ways to increase that monthly bill, they have an extreme interest in looking at the delivery of 1080p/60 services as a potential premium channel tier. Fiber delivery companies, too, have an equal motivation. So, where does this leave the broadcaster?

Many cable systems receive their broadcast feeds directly from the station as opposed to off-air. If the content was available in that format, providing a 1080p/60 feed to a cable system would be one opportunity to not be left behind. Obviously, this not only requires the appropriate content but a system infrastructure to handle it; 1.5Gb/s won't do it. One hope is ATSC 2.0, the loose moniker given to a planned major update to the original ATSC specification. It has many issues, including 1080p/60 for the broadcaster — potentially another vote for 3Gb/s. Also, in the not too distant future is 3-D. At CES, major manufacturers demonstrated new 3-D capable television receivers. Only time will tell how 3-D plays out for entertainment.

Consider 3Gb/s for the future

As a broadcaster, do you need a 3Gb/s plant today? The answer is certainly no. But with the potential of so many bandwidth-consuming streams on the horizon and with the need to remain competitive for a position on that home display, it had better be a key part of your future-proofing and survival strategy. Any broadcast plant being built today must address the needs of what the coming years will bring.

One thing is certain; the last bastion of interlace display, the CRT, is all but dead. Transmitting an interlace signal only to have it deinterlaced for a flat-screen display seems silly. Welcome to a progressive future.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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