As I write this, the 2018 NAB Show and the ATSC Next Gen TV Conference have come and gone. Since my last column I also had a chance to visit WRAL-TV in Raleigh and see the demonstration of the PyeongChang Olympics broadcast over their ATSC 3.0 station, complete with interactive content.
These events gave me a glimpse of the future of over-the-air TV broadcasting from the perspective of broadcasters, manufacturers and the engineers who created it and are now building that future.
ATSC 3.0 MATURES
Thanks to Pete Sockett and Capitol Broadcasting for inviting me to see the Next Gen TV demonstration in Raleigh at the State Club at North Carolina State University, and allowing me to help with the setup. It was great to see how ATSC 3.0 works in the real world.
WRAL-TV’s ATSC 3.0 transmitter has an ERP of only 40 kW, well below what most broadcasters will eventually use for ATSC 3.0, but even at this power we were able to receive the Olympics UHD programming with a Mohu Leaf antenna attached to a curtain behind the TV.
The more robust stream with WRAL-TV’s HD programming was received reliably around the room on prototype ATSC 3.0 dongles and a standard Windows 10 tablet. For more information and pictures, see www.wraltechwire.com/tag/next-gen-tv/.
The opportunity to see how ATSC 3.0 worked over-the-air in Raleigh and see the options available gave me more confidence broadcasters will be able to successfully roll out this complex standard.
For a successful rollout, it will be important that station engineers have a chance to play with the technology, try different transmission parameters and explore the options the standard offers for delivering content and emergency information in different ways before the number of viewers increase and business needs limit station engineers’ opportunity to experiment.
At the NAB Show broadcasters were able to see ATSC 3.0 content over low-power transmitters in the exhibit hall and from a transmitter on Black Mountain.
Overall, this year’s demonstrations were similar to those from last year, but more polished, with extended features. For me, it was a sign the ATSC 3.0 landscape is maturing, getting ready for rollout.
One exhibit in the LVCC lobby highlighted all the stations currently on the air with ATSC 3.0 broadcasts — Sinclair’s single frequency network in Baltimore and Washington, the NAB test station in Cleveland, WRAL-TV’s station in Raleigh and new test stations in Phoenix and Dallas. For more on the Phoenix project, see www.pearltv.com/model-market.
Another sign that ATSC 3.0 is maturing was the number of companies showing products for ATSC 3.0 at the NAB Show. Two years ago most transmitter manufacturers promised some upgrade path to ATSC 3.0. Last year, all the ATSC 1.0 transmitter manufacturers I’m aware of offered an ATSC 3.0 exciter option of some sort.
For ATSC 3.0 to succeed, we need to get more ATSC 3.0 stations on the air, even if the number of viewers may be limited.
What was new this year was an increased number of products for receiving and decoding the ATSC 3.0 signals from those transmitters. Other manufacturers offered standalone receiver/decoder solutions.
The price of these receivers — approaching $20,000 or higher depending on the options — seemed high until I thought about what we paid for analog TV monitoring. A proper monitoring setup for an analog TV station around 1990 consisted of a Tektronix 1450 television demodulator (with the TDC downconverter), a VM-700 analyzer and a BTSC audio modulation monitor. It would be tough to put together an ATSC 3.0 monitoring package that cost as much as that setup!
I know many readers are looking for a less expensive way of viewing ATSC 3.0. I had the opportunity to test the Airwavz dongle at the NAB Show. I plugged the dongle into my laptop and was able to view the characteristics of the Black Mountain ATSC 3.0 signal I received in my hotel room. This used an early version of the software that did not allow viewing content on the laptop.
Airwavz said they had tried routing the IP output from the program to the network input of a Sony ATSC 3.0 TV set in the same booth and it was able to decode and display the stream. I’ll have more on this product when I have a chance to upgrade to the latest software and test it in a location with an ATSC 3.0 signal.
In discussions with some manufacturers at the show, it looks like there may be some other ATSC 3.0 dongles appearing at some point in the future. Don’t expect the price to match that of an ATSC 1.0 dongle, but pricing around $250 or less may be possible. Final price and timing for ATSC 3.0 dongles and “converter boxes” (which will likely stream content over an IP connection to a smart TV, tablet or PC running an ATSC 3.0 application) will depend on the availability of lower-cost demodulator chips as well as IP (intellectual property licensing) costs.
At the ATSC Next Gen TV Conference in Washington in May it was clear ATSC 3.0 had the support of broadcasters, consumer electronics manufacturers and even government. Unlike the previous conference, which focused primarily on the technology and the potential of the standard, this year’s conference highlighted real-world applications, some of which are being rolled out now in limited form with ATSC 1.0.
Emergency alerting, with the ability to provide detailed information in the form of maps, videos and text with an ease that would be impossible using cellular messaging is a key feature for governments.
More precise measurement of TV viewing is of interest to advertisers and broadcasters competing with on-line advertising. Both are available now.
The transition to ATSC 3.0 will be complicated, not only for broadcasters but cable companies as well. Cable carriage of ATSC 3.0 content is going to require cooperation between broadcasters and cable companies. I was pleased to hear about the progress made towards this in ATSC TG3/S37, the Specialist Group on Conversion and Redistribution of ATSC 3.0 Service.
For ATSC 3.0 to succeed, we need to get more ATSC 3.0 stations on the air, even if the number of viewers may be limited. In the early days of ATSC 1.0, station engineers had a one-to-one relationship with early adopters of HDTV, sometimes changing settings to help them get reception when one manufacturer’s receiver had a problem with their transport stream.
While all indications are the first-generation ATSC 3.0 receivers are working much better, I expect there will still be a lot of broadcaster-viewer interaction. That’s a key focus of the Phoenix test and essential for a transition to ATSC 3.0 to succeed.
Until full-power stations are willing to put their ATSC 1.0 programming on another station’s signal and switch to ATSC 3.0, finding transition spectrum is going to be difficult. Class A and LPTV stations have a role to play. While the lower ERP (about 4.3 dB less than the WRAL-TV ATSC 3.0 station) may make indoor reception more difficult at higher bit rates, the early adopters of ATSC 3.0 may be willing to make an extra effort to get a decent signal. Setting expectations will be important.
I’m looking forward to seeing more ATSC 3.0 stations on the air, using the Airwavz dongle to see how they work in the real world, and hearing the experiences of engineers putting ATSC 3.0 on the air!
As always, your comments and questions are welcome. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.
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