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NAB NY Explores ‘Lessons Learned’ from First NextGen TV Deployments

NextGen TV Panel
(Image credit: NAB Show NY)

This is the second of a two part story on the NextGen Broadcast Conference 2020 held as part of the virtual NAB New York Show. Part one is available here.

NEW YORK—The NextGen Broadcast Conference 2020 at the virtual NAB New York Show took a deep dive on ATSC 3.0, offering attendees the perspectives of NextGen TV authorities on a variety of topics.

A major theme of the conference was the cooperation that’s been required to advance the development of 3.0 technology and deployment of services—whether it’s among broadcasters entering into hosting agreements, vendors working with one another to ensure harmony among their 3.0 products or between broadcasters and cable operators to minimize hiccups that could arise during the 1.0-to-3.0 transition.

ALL SYSTEMS GO

Four leading voices in the ATSC 3.0 transition shared their insights about NextGen TV rollouts during the “All Systems Go for Deployment” session.

The panel included Todd Achilles, co-founder, president and CEO, Edge Networks; Mark Aitken, senior vice president, Advanced Technology at Sinclair Broadcast Group; Richard Friedel, executive vice president, Corporate Engineering at Fox Television Stations; and Brett Jenkins, executive vice president, CTO at Nexstar. ATSC President Madeleine Noland moderated the session.

Aitken and Jenkins addressed the challenges faced by broadcasters transitioning to 3.0. Understanding that one size does not fit all and that every local market will have its own challenges in coordinating ATSC 1.0 hosting among broadcasters sharing facilities is critical, said Aitken.

However, having 12 markets transitioned to 3.0 has given Sinclair experience thinking through and planning future NextGen TV rollouts, which should help, he said.

“I would agree with that,” said Jenkins, who noted that Nexstar has worked closely with Sinclair and Fox Television to coordinate market transitions.

From Jenkins’ point of view, the technology needed to transition markets is not the issue. “But there’s so many other moving pieces—the regulatory requirements, the licensing requirements, the notifications, the channel sharing, getting all your programming clearances. There are just so many non-technical pieces.”

Friedel, who said Fox will complete 3.0 rollouts at nine O&Os by the end of this year or possibly early January 2021, struck an upbeat note about the transition process. “The good news is all of us have been involved in this, and we’ve now made it easy for people to follow.”

Those who were among the first in the transition process have educated the broadcast networks about 3.0, secured deals with them, clarified the concept of sharing bandwidth and made sure they understood that there may be some impact on programing, he said.

“But they’ve all now… pretty well bought into the concept and are moving forward, I’m pleased to say,” said Friedel, who added later that all Fox stations launching NextGen TV will have 3.0 promotional material and will run “program snippets that tell people about 3.0 capabilities.”

Edge Networks faced a different set of challenges with the launch of its Evoca wireless pay-TV service built on ATSC 3.0, said Achilles.

With the first deployment in Boise, Idaho, on its two low-power stations in the market, there were no 1.0 hosting related challenges. Evoca’s heavy lift was getting a new enterprise off the ground from scratch, he said.

Noland inquired if a 3.0 “killer app” is likely. Friedel downplayed the chance of one in the near term, saying the first priority is to get video, audio and closed captions on air. More sophisticated aspects of NextGen TV can then follow.

“The killer app in the future is going to be a phone,” said Aitken, noting that Sinclair recently took delivery of the first production samples of its Mark One ATSC 3.0-enabled smartphone. “All of our 3.0 host stations have been deployed with… three legs on the stool” he added.

The first is a ModCod that will support robust transmission to mobile and portable devices. The second is high dynamic range in every one of Sinclair’s 3.0 markets made available via Technicolor’s SL-HDR1. And third is the broadcast app to enable an interactive TV environment, he said.

The ATSC president asked Jenkins if he thought the whole industry will get on board with NextGen TV.

“I don’t see how you can be a broadcaster who is interested in the business for the long view and not be bought into needing to do ATSC 3.0,” said Jenkins.

“Our view at Nexstar, my view, is that… it’s not a risk…. And we’re trying to move forward quickly with market conversions almost… [to] demonstrate to the rest of the industry that… you can light up these markets and your current business is safe. Your 1.0 distribution is safe.”

KINGS OF COLLABORATION

Broadcasters aren’t alone when it comes to the need to work together to make NextGen TV a success. The vendor community, too, is finding that it’s key.

During the conference’s “Kings of Collaboration” session, Aby Alexander, president, Thomson Broadcast; Tom Barbeau, vice president, engineering at Hitachi Kokusai Electric Comark; Dave Brass, vice president, strategic accounts at ATEME; and Phil Whitebloom, vice president, U.S. sales at VideoFlow, were joined by moderator Mark Corl, senior vice president, Emergent Technology Development at Triveni Digital, to discuss how the vendor community is working together to bring about 3.0.

There is a notable difference between the involvement of vendors in the ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 deployments, said Brass. “The traditional approach to the ATSC 1 space was very much an end-to-end solution,” he said. “There were very few partnerships involved in… providing a complete on-air package [to a station].”

However, that’s not the case with 3.0 because of the numerous different technologies in play. “As a result of that, people have to work together in a much more collaborative fashion in order to provide the solution,” he said.

Hitachi-Comark’s Barbeau echoed that sentiment. The company once again has stood up Comark Digital Services to create an environment where collaboration among vendors on 3.0 can occur.

“We set up our lab where we’ve been broadcasting ATSC 3, testing ATSC 3 components for three years now,” he said. “We set up stacks for all three of the major ATSC 3 ecosystems—Enensys, Triveni [Digital] and DigiCap.”

Among the other vendors involved are ATEME, chosen following an encoding shootout, and VideoFlow for stream protection and security, he added.

Thomson Broadcast was laying the groundwork to build transmitters in the U.S. for the 3.0 transition as well as setting up an ATSC Technology and Innovation Center in Boston when COVID-19 hit, said Alexander.

While those projects are in stasis at the moment, awaiting the end of the pandemic, Thomson has continued to work with “quite a few partners” to address the IP interactivity and connectivity associated with 3.0, he said.

“We looked at each and every side of these challenges [which include content creation, management and monetization] and we augmented a partner chain…. We have collaborated with… Triveni [Digital], Synamedia, Pace Media [and] quite a few other partners to build this ATSC 3.0 ecosystem,” said Alexander.

VideoFlow, which offers a video transport system as well as products to monitor the health of the network and issues that could impact video, has collaborated with other vendors in regards to the STL TP, studio-to-transmitter link transport protocol, responsible for moving data, said Whitebloom.

“We work very closely with all the component manufacturers that are inside the workflow for ATSC 3, making sure that the product can take it [data] from one point to the other, just like it’s expected to be,” said Whitebloom.

Collaborating with other vendors is nothing new to Triveni Digital, said Corl, noting that the company’s focus on working with other vendors goes back 20 years to the early days of HDTV. In today’s ATSC 3.0 ecosystem, there are so many different technology components required that the company’s emphasis on supporting collaboration has reached a new level.

“There’s all this piecing things together and everything in ATSC 3,” he said. “Actually, we’ve seen a huge uptick in partnerships and collaboration,” said Corl. “We actually have a meeting every week talking about this… [the] various partners and what we’re doing with each of them. We can’t keep track of all of it. It’s great, and it’s hard.”

CABLE CONNECTIONS

The theme of collaboration carried over to the “Cable Connection” session during the conference. Moderated by Pearl TV Executive Director Anne Schelle, the panel featured Dave Folsom, acting CTO at Pearl TV; Clarence Hau, vice president, Advanced Technology & Strategy at NBCUniversal; Mark Myslinski, broadcast solutions manager at Synamedia; and Steve Watkins, executive director, Strategic Technology Policy at Cox Communications.

The discussion began with Folsom reviewing the status of the Phoenix Model Market Project, including a discussion of major milestones achieved, such as on-location plugfests for 3.0 vendors to meet “in a collegial manner” to address technical and implementation issues; development of “a practical content security and service protection system,” an application framework to assist broadcasters in offering 3.0; and guidance for broadcasters new to NextGen TV that offers “a safe place to start.” Folsom also mentioned the recent addition of Scripps-owned KASW to the project to support single frequency network testing and implementation.

But the main theme of the session was enabling a smooth 3.0 handoff from broadcasters to cable operators. To that end, Pearl TV has created a forum for broadcast and cable leaders, including CableLabs, to advance an initiative to facilitate the delivery 3.0 to cable headends, said Folsom.

“The NextGen standard now requires new innovative delivery solutions since legacy-to-cable delivery technologies are not adaptable to the new features that make NextGen TV so exciting,” he said.

Pearl TV has “championed” development of a cable-centric integrated receiver decoder (IRD) and a fiber delivery schema for 3.0 in a form that cable can work with, he said, adding that both have now been tested.

Cox’s Watkins addressed some of the issues affecting cable operators that stem from NextGen TV. “To start, even though this is just yet another channel, the reality is that it has implications in the entire ecosystem of cable from the reception point to processing, to distribution to the set top, to the TV,” he said.

Illustrating one issue in particular, Watkins pointed to the impact channel sharing in Phoenix used to maintain 1.0 service while rolling out 3.0 has had on cable operations. “What happened there is basically there were four channels that were involved in a transition,” he said.

“They’ve taken four channels, and they brought them down into three for the purposes of distribution across the ATSC 1 platform.”

Besides some services being dropped and HD format changes from 1080i to 720p, new 1.0 hosting agreements for 3.0 rollouts raise new issues for cable headends, he said. Frequently, cable operators rely on both OTA reception and fiber delivery of broadcast signals at the headend with one service as a backup in the event of a failure of the other. However, when 1.0 hosting is involved to make room for 3.0, there’s likely no longer one-for-one transport stream mapping, he said.

“That’s going to require some regrouping, some remultiplexing, possibly even some re- encoding in the case where the format may have changed,” said Watkins.

“The complexity for us is simply that there’s a lot of different sources now coming from multiple places that have to be groomed in—not as transport streams for the full 19.1 multiplex, but instead have individual programs that have to be brought together,” he said. Watkins also advised broadcasters to communicate with their cable partners about their transition plans and not to rely simply on FCC filings to alert them of an impending transition. Synamedia’s Myslinski discussed his company’s efforts to customize its Digital Content Manager (DCM) to meet 3.0 and 1.0 requirements. DCM offers encoding and transcoding as well as multiplexing, statistical multiplexing and packaging, he said.

“That product as well is tightly interoperable with products from Triveni Digital, including their GuideBuilder, ROUTE encapsulator and their broadcast gateway,” said Myslinski. Synamedia has also begun offering “the reciprocal product,” the Media Edge Gateway (MEG), which among other things offers ATSC 3.0 reception, he said.

Mark Myslinski and Anne Schelle

Mark Myslinski and Anne Schelle (Image credit: NAB Show NY)

“As cable decides to take more and more of the ATSC [3.0] deep rich features, you know, it’s just a software upgrade, and we can provide more or less processing of the ATSC 3.0 signals to put them out over the cable plant,” said Myslinski in reference to MEG.

NBCUniversal’s Hau told those attending the session that his company has just begun exploring the wide ranging possibilities offered by the NextGen TV platform.

“[M]any of our efforts of late have been on NextGen formats to develop and ramp up on production and distribution capabilities and our overall understanding of how to handle these new formats,” he said.

NBCU has been working on new live production and distribution methodologies for UHD and developing “single stream” live production workflows that serve both HD and NextGen TV audiences with UHD production with high dynamic range [HDR], he said.

“Our goal here really is to create the most compelling pictures, maximize the dynamic range and color depth that HDR provides without compromising that core HD broadcast,” he said.

Work is also under way on enabling NextGen audio features for live production. “Dolby Atmos gives the audience a new immersive audio, which is the next step beyond 5.1.,” he said, adding that NBCU is experimenting with Dolby AC4 features like voice boost, alternate announcers and audio description for the visually impaired.

“I see the NextGen TV deployment as an important step in getting some of these new formats to the wide audience that broadcast television can provide,” he said. However, NBCU is not solely focused on a 3.0 OTA rollout, but also for its redistribution platforms. “It’s important that these NextGen feature sets, whatever they may be, are available to all viewers regardless of how they receive our content,” said Hau.

INDIA INTEGRATION

The ATSC 2020 NextGen Broadcast Conference also offered a glimpse at how the NextGen TV standard might one day serve the needs of the audience in the world’s largest democracy.

Shri Shashi S. Vempati, CEO of Prasar Bharati New Delhi, India’s largest public broadcasting agency and Pamela Kumar, founder, chair and vice president of the Cloud Computing Innovation Council of India and director general of the Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI), joined Noland to discuss India’s unique requirements as relates to a broadcast standard.

Discussing tele-education, Vempati noted how smartphone TV reception could play an important role in the nation’s future. As the youth of the nation increasingly consumes media on mobile phones, the challenge of reaching students becomes more difficult for broadcasters.

However, the efforts of TSDSI and possible collaboration with ATSC could spur evolution in broadcast standards allowing Prasas Bharati and other broadcasters to reach smartphones with broadcast content via ATSC 3.0 and 5G, he said.

Vempati also noted the need to accommodate India’s linguistic diversity, where there are more than 20 official languages spoken, a desire for better audience measurement technology, especially for smartphone broadcast consumers, and the availability of its Newser App via the broadcast infrastructure as use cases for emerging technology and standards.

The convergence of broadcast and broadband makes a lot of sense, but in the context of India its use and adoption is different than elsewhere in the world, said Kumar.

To illustrate her point, Kumar recalled an ITU meeting in which enhanced mobile broadband for rural deployment was being discussed. Two proposals were on the table, one from China and the other from Europe and America.

China’s proposal centered on delivering an uninterrupted 100Mb/s data stream to passengers on bullet trains traveling at 500 kilometers per hour, while the European and American proposal discussed reaching vehicles traveling on highways at 125 kilometers.

“We were sitting there and saying… we have 70% of our population living in the villages consuming… their video and broadband, and that’s their need,” she said. “[W]e want to guarantee 100Mb/s uninterrupted broadband to every villager, every man in the street—whether he is standing or he is walking… [or traveling] at [some] particular meters per hour in a vehicle.”

As a result, TSDSI has been working for the past few years enlisting the support of other developing nations to advance the concept of low mobility large cells as a new broadband scenario and the technology to support it, she said.

“We feel a similar thing needs to happen in the case of broadcast-broadband [convergence],” she said. “[T]he priority is on what is needed…in India first,” said Kumar.