Pilot: UNC-TV Addresses Safety With Next Gen TV

The Pilot Innovation Challenge, an initiative of the National Association of Broadcasters, “recognizes creative ideas that leverage technological advances in the production, distribution and display of engaging content.” More than 150 ideas were submitted to address the challenge question, “What is an unconventional way broadcasters and other local media could serve communities?

TV Technology recently spoke with Adam Woodlief of UNC-TV, about the “Next Gen TV: Saving Lives One Alert at a Time, which has been named a finalist in the Challenge. Winners will be announced on Nov. 13.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Please describe the Next Gen TV project and technology behind it.

ADAM WOODLIEF: Every second is valuable to first responders and the public safety community. Unfortunately, the analog paging system currently in use throughout North Carolina (and across the United States) is based on outdated technology that is slow to deliver emergency information. The proposalfrom the University of North Carolina Center for Public Television (UNC-TV), “Next Gen TV: Saving Lives One Alert at a Time,” will enable North Carolina’s public safety community to provide a more timely response to emergencies by shifting this outdated system to datacasting technology over broadcast television. This concept will serve as a pilot to be replicated in other states and regions.

The analog paging system used by the public safety community for emergency notifications is slow compared to contemporary communication standards. Currently fire stations are alerted of incidents, which relies on tones and voice delivered over radio channels to alert specific responder groups (fires stations, engines, ambulances) of an incident. Each responder group is sent an alert from the 911 Center that can last 2-3 seconds. When multiple groups are paged all tones must be transmitted sequentially before any of the dispatch information can be delivered. This is followed by the voice dispatch taking 20-40 seconds depending on the verbal information provided. During this process other emergencies are queued waiting for the paging transmitter to become available delaying the notification for other responder groups.

Datacasting technology can improve public safety paging performance by providing accelerated delivery of alerts. It would provide the ability to alert multiple responders in milliseconds using a datacast digital format, many times faster than today’s analog paging system. Additionally, utilizing broadcast televisions “high tower/high power” transmission capability, a far wider reception area for paging receivers would be achieved. The advent of datacasting presents a unique opportunity to serve emergency notifications to first responders in a more efficient manner over a greater distance with better coverage than ever before. The timing is perfect for further development of this concept

These key ideas are highlighted in this proposal:

· Digital delivery of information greatly increases the speed of reception, thus, decreasing response times

· Datacasting capacity allows for dozens of separate dispatches within milliseconds

· A centralized paging system serving a large region decreases mutual aid requests

· A larger coverage footprint allows departments to notify members outside their jurisdiction

· Transmitting infrastructure is already in place

· Receivers can also support live audio streaming, video, data files, maps, and sensor data

· With the approach of ATSC 3.0 "Next Gen TV" this concept can be expanded to reach beyond to other first responders both in the field and at fixed locations. 

Next Gen TV: Saving Lives One Alert at a Time, is an idea that has the power to save lives.

TVT:What was the inspiration behind the service?

AW: As a public media service for North Carolina it is our mission to serve our community. This proposal came out of our partnership with public safety agencies. UNC-TV has been involved with many public and nonpublic facing projects with varying agencies, the shared knowledge of our capabilities led to this concept. This is not a solution in search of a problem; public safety leaders recognized a problem and asked us to help them solve it. 

Fire and EMS Emergency Response is heavily staffed by volunteer responders—as such, they continue to use pagers as a means of notification to respond to an emergency in their community. Voice pagers (not text) are by far the most common mechanism (of note, cellular systems do not qualify in the emergency response role for what should be obvious reasons). High Power-High Tower ATSC transmissions at frequencies that penetrate buildings would be a perfect way to notify these volunteer responders if there was a "pager" that could "hear" and decode ATSC transmissions. 

While considering a way to provide broad area monitoring of voice radio transmissions, the realization struck us that these frequencies, tower heights, and power levels are perfect for providing paging coverage for paging and such a capability could dramatically improve response over voice paging. Text paging is better for comprehension, faster, can provide more information, and lends itself to automated mechanisms. A 50 watt transmitter at a 70-foot elevation cannot compete with megawatt transmission from a 1000-foot tower for coverage.

TVT:How do you expect the Next Gen TV service to impact the broadcast industry?

AW: “Next Gen TV: Saving Lives One Alert at a Time” is a unique and groundbreaking initiative to use datacasting as a delivery method for emergency paging for first responders in a way never utilized. What makes this concept unique is that public safety officials approached UNC-TV with the use case. The creative use of the datacasting technology, aligned with a strong collaboration between UNCTV and the public safety community, will save time, lives and money. This public safety application of datacasting can also work as a partner with current LTE and analog delivery methods creating a more robust notification strategy. Utilization of the TV broadcast spectrum to reach a larger geographical area as well as being able to deliver more detailed information is a needed to improve public safety paging.

It also serves as a gateway between current ATSC 1.0 technology and ATSC 3.0. An idea like this offers a look at what broadcasters can provide with ATSC 3.0. We can showcase the capabilities of Next Gen TV beyond interactive shows in 4k and surround sound. This concept can accelerate the adoption of 3.0. It will also increase the viability of broadcasters as a true public service.

TVT:Next Gen TV is the widely known nickname for ATSC 3.0, will this technology only be able to be utilized when ATSC 3.0 begins broadcasting, or will it be compatible with ATSC 1.0?

AW: Our project offers a bridge of current and future technology. While limited to mainly fixed locations with ATSC 1.0, it still offers enriched data delivery and time saving delivery. As we move forward we can take advantage of the mobility and robust signal strength offered by Next Gen TV. We can use the current standard to further develop the concept and begin thinking about future advancements in the application.

TVT:What should readers know about the technology and its practical implications?

AW: UNC-TV is focused on using its technology to serve the public. We offer high quality educational and entertaining programs via our broadcast services. We can also serve our communities through non-public facing uses of our broadcast spectrum. This technology allows us to enhance our first responder’s abilities to do their jobs. Our current broadcast technology can be used in a variety of ways to help fill the gaps in current communication methods. ATSC 3.0 is a gamechanger with its potential mobile applications and better structure penetration.