All About ATSC 3.0 (Part 1 of Many)

WASHINGTON— Welcome to my first blog for TV Technology. I appreciate this opportunity to talk regularly about work underway in the Advanced Television Systems Committee on the next generation digital television system currently under development, which we call “ATSC 3.0.” With this installment, I want to set the stage with a discussion of standards development in general. Future blogs will focus on specific layers or elements of the ATSC 3.0 system under development.

Please believe me when I say that work on ATSC 3.0 is not some abstract science project. This is the real deal. Hundreds of engineers and specialists from dozens of countries are working to develop, refine, and describe the ATSC 3.0 system. And just as important, executives from major companies and organizations worldwide have made known their keen interest in seeing a best-of-the-best system developed within a tight timeline.

But before I talk about ATSC 3.0, I want to talk briefly about standards, which has been the focus of my work for the past 15 years. What is the purpose of a standard? I’m glad you asked. A standard facilitates interoperability of devices and services. Consumers can buy a TV and know that it will receive all stations in their market. Broadcasters and consumer electronics manufactures count on interoperability between services and devices. This paradigm has worked well for more than 50 years.

I suspect that most visitors to this web site have heard the old saying, “the great thing about standards is that we have so many.” That is true…and not.

To those outside the standardization process, the wheels of progress may appear to turn very slowly. This is the inevitable result of considering all sides of an issue. Work on any standard usually begins with one or more proposals from one or more organizations. To the proponent, their submission is usually believed to be complete and sufficient to address all stated needs. To a potential user of the standard, however, another view may exist. When multiple proposals are offered to address a single need (or collection of needs) the process can become quite involved and time-consuming.

While nearly everyone involved in standards work would like to see projects move swiftly through the process, they realize that no single organization or group has all the answers to a particular problem—or has even thought of all the questions. A great deal of creativity emerges from the competition of ideas. Finding solutions to complex problems takes time and requires participants to occasionally give up on their favored approach and agree that someone else’s approach is better. It is this focus on developing the best ideas that makes the process work.

It is clear that no process involving humans is perfect, and critics can always find examples of standardization efforts that failed to meet the requirements of the user and were therefore never implemented, or implemented and then quickly faded away. This situation may be the result of rushing the process or not considering all of the sides of a particular issue. It may also be the result of timing.

Standardization work, like most any other product, can be adversely impacted by timing. A standard may be developed and finalized too early in the technology lifecycle. If so, it may be outdated by the time it is issued because the underlying technology has continued to move forward, leaving it of little value in the marketplace. On the other hand, a standard developed too late in the process may remain unused because a proprietary solution reached the market first and has become a de-facto standard, or the intended users have simply moved on to something else.

It is difficult to address timing when it comes to standardization work. Technologists do their best to issue standards at the point the underlying technology is stable and the user base wants the product. As a practical matter, each standards organization offers its work to the marketplace. Many times they are successful; sometimes they are not. Taken on the whole, however, the work advances the state of the art.

I bring up timing here because it is important in the work on ATSC 3.0. The first discussions within the organization on what a next-generation DTV system might look like date back to at least 2008. Formal exploration of the options began in 2010 and standardization work began in 2013.

When work was started, the ideal end-date for a published standard (actually a suite of standards) was the subject of some debate. One member suggested building in a lot of flexibility, estimating “five years +/–10 years.” The practicalities of developing, analyzing, testing, and documenting the technologies that would be necessary for ATSC 3.0 led to a more reasonable (and firm) timeline, the first milestone of which was achieved in April of this year with publication of the first element of the new system. That document, “Candidate Standard: System Discovery and Signaling,” was completed on time. Before the end of 2015, several more documents are expected to advance to Candidate Standard status, which is the implementation phase for testing and demonstrations of the technology.

Getting the timing right for development of a complex—and important—standard is difficult because there are always elements that are outside the control of the organization. Technology developments are one element; regulatory developments are another.

I think it is accurate, and sufficient, to say that the timing for ATSC 3.0 is as near to perfect as we could have hoped for back in 2010 when the work began.

Next time, a deep dive into ATSC 3.0, and what’s in it for broadcasters and viewers.

Jerry Whitaker is Vice President for Standards Development at the Advanced Television Systems Committee. He supports the work of the various ATSC technology and specialist groups and assists in the development of ATSC Standards and related documents. He currently serves as Secretary of the Technology and Standards Group and Secretary of the Technology Group on Next Generation Broadcast Television, and is closely involved in work relating to educational programs. Mr. Whitaker is a Fellow the Society of Broadcast Engineers and a Fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

Jerry Whitaker