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NextGen TV Deployment Picks Up Steam

Workers at the DigiCAP facility in South Korea test the app developed for Sinclair that allows companion content to be sent along with mainstream programming at the SBG Las Vegas ATSC 3.0 broadcast operation. Testing and delivery of the specialized app was all done remotely, obviating the need for travel by the team. (Image credit: Sinclair Broadcast Group)

WASHINGTON—ATSC 3.0 (aka NextGen TV)—got off to a flying start early this year, with the first TV sets for U.S. consumers being displayed at CES in January and rollouts across the country set to go like a line of dominoes set in motion.

Then came the pandemic.

We’re now halfway through 2020. Has the scramble to maintain some sort of normalcy in TV station day-to-day operations pushed the plan for wide-scale deployment of this new breed of television to the wayside, or is it continuing to track?

“There was a slight delay, but it was not a serious delay,” said Mark Aitken, senior vice president of advanced technology for Sinclair and president of the company’s NextGen TV arm, ONE Media. “Things are back in gear now.”

The starting gun fired on May 26 with the launch of NextGen TV in Las Vegas with network affiliates owned by Sinclair, Nexstar and Scripps. The stations, Sinclair’s KSNV NBC and KVCW CW affiliates, Nexstar’s KLAS CBS affiliate and Scripps’ KTNV ABC affiliate, are sharing a single 6 MHz channel and transmitting from Sinclair’s tower on Black Mountain outside the city.

The launch marked the first full-power, multistation commercial deployment of NextGen TV in the country. BitPath, formerly Spectrum Co., led the planning and coordination efforts to put the stations on air.

On June 16, Sinclair’s WPGH (Fox) and WPNT (MyNet) and Hearst’s WTAE (ABC) began broadcasting 3.0 in Pittsburgh. Stations in Nashville and Salt Lake City have also launched NextGen TV, and Aitken said there are more waiting in the wings.

“We have a succession of stations lined up to go this year,” Aitken said. “I think a total of 17 or 18 stations are scheduled to launch. We’re tooling along as fast as we can, and we’ve worked around some of the encumbrances of Covid-19.”

GROWING LIST

ATSC President Madeleine Noland, while acknowledging some slowdown in 3.0 rollout, praised industry efforts in moving the transition as far along as it’s gotten already.

“I know that some markets—for example, Las Vegas—were going to launch before NAB in order to be up on the air in time for the NAB Show, which, of course, was disrupted by the coronavirus,” said Noland. “But we’re pleased that Las Vegas is now on the air. I’ve been very impressed with broadcasters’ ability to move the ball forward even during this pandemic. I know it’s slowed them down and I know it’s been hard with the ad revenues [declining], but they’re doing it.

“Right now, we have seven markets with ATSC 3.0 on the air and we have an additional three markets that have filed for their FCC licenses, and a fourth market which has been announced, but they haven’t actually filed for licenses yet. Not counting that last market, one in every seven households in the U.S. is going to have ATSC 3.0 very soon.”

Noland reported that work on finetuning of the 3.0 standard and enhancements to it continues within the ATSC organization, with planning teams exploring such areas as automotive applications, intertower communications, new codecs, core network technologies and even companion devices to enhance the television viewing experience via touchscreens.

Sam Matheny, executive vice president and chief technology officer at NAB, also acknowledged the pandemic’s impact, but remained upbeat.

“Broadcasters remain committed to deployment, but there will be some unavoidable delays due to the coronavirus,” said Matheny. “Broadcasters are taking steps to minimize these delays, and I think the launch of NextGen TV in Las Vegas is a great example of the commitment to deployment, and we’ll see other major deployments this year. I applaud Nexstar, Scripps and Sinclair—who all compete in that market—for their collaboration to launch NextGen TV.”

NOT JUST FOR SHOW

With the difficulties in moving installation crews around, getting necessary equipment in place, and other impediments, will deployments this year be just bare bones, akin to lighting up the “stereo” light on an FM tuner while still transmitting monaural content—or will there be something new and different for those who bring home a NextGen TV set?

Aitken says it’s the latter as far as Sinclair is concerned.

“We’re following our ‘MO’ so to speak,” he said. “In every market that we deploy, we’ve got a robust channel that’s supported by the SL-HDR1 standard. For us, this is very important. If folks want HDR, this is the way we’re going to give it to them.

“Also, we’ve been developing and successfully deploying broadcast app extensions. In Las Vegas we have the ability to do notifications in the subpart of the AEA&I [advanced emergency and alerting and informing] part of the signal. This allows us to send additional companion content that uses the A/344 interactive layer, the ‘browsing environment’ of the NextGen TV standard. We’ll be doing this in every market as deployments advance. People are used to this companion content in the environment of the internet in our OTT services and we’re bringing some of this OTT flavor to OTA.”

GETTING IT DONE REMOTELY

Aitken also observed that the Las Vegas rollout was not hampered by travel limitations or other restrictions.

“Las Vegas got launched without a single person from the team being directly deployed,” he said. “We did everything remotely, meaning either literally remotely through IP tunneling into the facility and doing setups, [or] and in some cases instructing the skilled hands of engineers on site.”

Joe Turbolski, vice president of sales at Hitachi Kokusai Electric Comark LLC, noted also that putting 3.0 in operation is easily accomplished once the decision is made within a market about carriage of ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 signals.

“The actual technology implementation and service turn-on is likely the simplest part, at least for a group like CDS [Comark Digital Services],” said Turbolski. “The good news is that many of the new functions required to start an ATSC 3.0 service can be virtualized and thus ‘installed’ remotely without ever having to set foot on a customer’s facility.”

Turbolski is also very positive about 3.0 “buy in” by broadcasters and consumers alike.

“I do believe that the market will have achieved critical mass on several fronts including broadcasters rolling out their initial ATSC 3.0 services and availability of several options for reception of new NextGen TV services. The future for NextGen TV is definitely bright for broadcasters, equipment suppliers, and most importantly consumers.”

Turbolski observed that if the ATSC 3.0 rollout could somehow have been completed before the pandemic struck, consumers would have been better equipped with 3.0-enabled distance learning/interactive content applications, the freeing up of internet bandwidth by offloading video services, and enhanced emergency alerting functions for getting essential information to citizens.

‘BROADCAST INTERNET’

Noland said the FCC has been proactive on NextGen TV this year.

“FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has coined a new term, ‘Broadcast Internet,’ which is focusing on the data delivery capabilities of ATSC 3.0,” said Noland. “Rulemaking within the FCC has always been focused on the airwaves as television service transmission systems. With broadcasters now talking about providing data delivery services, the commission is examining the existing rules broadcasters operate under to see if they still apply.

“We’re excited that the FCC has recognized the capabilities of the system and how it might be used in the marketplace, and is seriously considering how these use cases could be impacted by the regulations that exist today. We congratulate the FCC for looking into these topics and for understanding what the capabilities of the ATSC 3.0 system are. There’s been great support from the FCC for this new technology.”

EXPLORING ATSC 3.0’S POTENTIAL IN PUBLIC BROADCASTING

Michigan State University’s WKAR-TV has been on the ATSC 3.0 bandwagon for some time now, even establishing the NextGen Media Innovation Lab (NMIL) in conjunction with the school’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences to explore potential public broadcasting applications.”

Susi Elkins, director of broadcasting and general manager at WKAR Public Media, said the lab has been focusing on educational interactivity use cases, a campus alerting solution, developing scenarios about what public broadcasting fundraising might be like in a NextGen TV environment, as well as the addition of supplemental resources to broadcast offerings.

“Since the launch of the NMIL, we’ve been particularly focused on tapping the potential of “Curious Crew,” a children’s science program produced by WKAR,” she said. “Along with the educational content of the show itself, WKAR offers “Curiosity Guides,” comprised of supplemental content, tutorials, and other instructional material. [These] have been available on our website, but we wanted to see if we could bundle these resources with the broadcast to be accessible on any device, as well as facilitate real-time feedback and data collection.”

A NEW 3.0 GROUP EMERGES

Indicative of the interest in NextGen TV’s future, the “NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance” was launched last month with the goal of helping “to accelerate the industry’s evolution toward next-generation broadcast and OTT television systems.”

Members include BitRouter, DigIT Signage Technologies, Digital Alert Systems, Enensys Technologies, Hitachi Kokusai Electric (including Comark and CDS), Triveni Digital and Verance.

Chairman Edward Czarnecki noted that “forward-thinking companies are exploring how to leverage new technology areas like ATSC 3.0” and said the organization would encourage collaboration and promote innovation among members.

“Alliance members will help shape the advanced information solutions that are part of next-generation TV,” said Czarnecki, calling the new organization a “true gamechanger for the industry.”

GETTING ATSC 3.0 INTO THE HOME

Putting ATSC 3.0 on the air achieves nothing without NextGen TV sets, and Covid-19 or no, receiver manufacturers haven’t been sitting still since announcing their U.S. models at the January CES.

“We began shipping these new 2020 LG OLED TVs in March,” said John Taylor, senior vice president of LG Electronics USA. “Not surprisingly, most sales to date have been online, although brick-and-mortar store sales are expected to rise starting this summer as the economy begins to reopen.

“While I can’t share specific sales data for competitive reasons, I’m pleased to report that sales have been pretty strong given the current environment. For LG, ATSC 3.0 is in our higher-end 4K and 8K OLED TVs, so NextGen TV capability is just one of the reasons people are buying them. We’re seeing evidence of consumer interest through a growing number of online inquiries about NextGen TV.”

NextGen TV set manufacturer Samsung is also staying busy in the 3.0 arena.

“We’ve been continuing to work with CTA on NextGen TV Certification for Samsung TV sets—all of our 2020 8K models (T Series) have been certified,” said Dan Schinasi, Samsung Electronics America’s director of product planning. “We’ve also extended our work with CTA, collaborating with several broadcast organizations to align on widespread rollout this year.”

Schinasi said that Samsung is also developing NextGen TV training materials and programs for its retail salespeople and is working on enhancements to current 3.0 products with an eye to the next generation of U.S. sets.

“While it’s too soon for us to comment on 2021, we can say that new features will roll out as broadcasters enhance the features of their broadcast apps,” he said. “We anticipate that many of the enhancements will be backwards compatible with 2020 NextGen TVs.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Anne Schelle, managing director of the Pearl TV consortium, is also upbeat about NextGen TV’s progress this year, and described some of the ongoing projects within her organization.

“While the coronavirus may have temporarily slowed down deployment of ATSC 3.0 across the country, Pearl and its members remain focused on building out as many next-generation TV stations as possible,” said Schelle. “Our focus, along with the other organizations involved with the Phoenix Model Market, continues to be building out the basic next-gen television service offering that will be launching in markets throughout the country with ATSC 3.0. Pearl members have more than 750 local stations that they own and operate. That’s a very significant part of the American broadcasting industry that is working together toward the goal of deploying ATSC 3.0 as fast as we can.

“One of our key responsibilities at Pearl is to translate our experience at the Phoenix Model Market into actionable things that a station can learn from as they plan for an ATSC 3.0 transition. That’s why we’ve been constantly updating the ‘Host Station Manual,’ a comprehensive guide that numbers over 160 pages of information [available for download at pearltv.com]. It’s been updated seven times already, most recently to add a section on the ‘Packager,’ a critical component in the next-gen TV broadcast chain.” 

Schelle concluded: “This is a very complex transition, and we can only be successful if we share, learn and collaborate.”