In recent years, the consumer electronics industry has been striving to make HDTV a bigger part of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Corporate one-upmanship has driven consumer electronics companies to develop ever-larger HDTV screens. At the 2008 CES show, Panasonic's 150in plasma display dwarfed competitors, not to mention the people who came to see it.

Next January, when CES returns to Las Vegas, the big news could be the introduction of mobile and handheld devices with tiny screens. The devices could receive over-the-air broadcasts using the new mobile/handheld DTV standard that is nearing completion by the ATSC (ATSC-M/H).

Those who rode the mobile DTV demo buses at NAB got a preview of what these devices may look like and how well the new ATSC-M/H standard works in demanding environments, such as the high-rise canyons along the Las Vegas strip. In short, all of the demos worked well, and one could see that the CE industry is ready to expand its offerings beyond the mobile handsets designed to work with competitive mobile TV offerings from the cell phone industry.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these demos is that the new ATSC-M/H standard, which will be known as ATSC A/153, goes far beyond an upgraded physical layer specification for the modulation required to deliver robust bit streams to mobile devices. These demos were built atop the ISO H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10 video compression standard, and they offered a variety of data services that can be delivered to M/H devices, including those built into vehicles with in-dash displays and car theater systems.

A/153 could more appropriately be called ATSC II. While being backward compatible with the existing 8-VSB/MPEG-2-based standard, virtually every aspect of the standard is being updated in an eight-part document that may approach 900 pages. And many of these updated capabilities could find their way into new TVs and new services from broadcasters that can be targeted at any M/H-compatible device.

One area in particular may be the sleeper in this new standard — the ability to deliver non-real-time (NRT) services to local cache for asynchronous viewing. While this is technically possible today using the A/90 Data Broadcast Standard, the ability to reach M/H devices reliably is likely to cause broadcasters to rethink their legacy business model, which in turn could have an effect on services for the big screen TV as well.

A new platform for TV broadcasting

All of this could not come at a better time for local broadcasters, who are facing a range of challenges as the end of the NTSC era approaches. Those challenges include:

  • declining ratings for traditional TV fare, both at the network and local levels;
  • declining local spot sales in an increasingly competitive media marketplace;
  • network demands for reverse compensation; and
  • the prospect that major content producers may use the Internet to deliver their content directly to consumers, bypassing broadcasters.

While the first ATSC standard offered many possibilities for new broadcast services, a decade later, the reality is that the only major changes have been the gradual shift to HDTV programming with multichannel audio, and the ability to simulcast additional services.

Now that HDTV receivers can be found in a sizeable percentage of U.S. homes, and the cost to produce HD programming is comparable to that of legacy SDTV production, the multichannel services are turning to HDTV tiers to keep existing subscribers and attract new ones. Both DIRECTV and DISH Networks will offer more than 100 HD channels by the end of the year, and cable systems are scrambling to keep up.

Many broadcasters hoped that HDTV would reinvigorate an industry in decline. However, it has not had a significant impact on ratings. Although, in some markets where stations moved to HD newscasts and HD news acquisition, there have been viewer shifts to the stations that upgraded to HD. The delivery of entertainment and news content in HD is now expected, and stations that ignore this reality face the risk of further ratings declines.

The ability to develop new services using an updated ATSC standard has the potential for those broadcasters willing to risk real innovation to reinvent the medium. This brings to mind the heady days of early TV broadcasting, when the networks discovered that radio with pictures was not what the public was looking for. An entirely new infrastructure for TV production had to be created, and new programming formats developed to bring the new medium into every U.S. home.

Much the same is likely to be true as broadcasters experiment with the ATSC-M/H standard and learn how to use it to compete with services now being delivered to M/H handsets, such as Apple's iPhone and the Samsung Instinct.

The first ATSC standard was limited by the subset of features that were implemented by CE manufacturers who were not yet challenged by an IT industry transitioning from the PC to a new generation of mobile devices that keep adding new capabilities. A prime example is the lack of support for many of the advanced audio services in the ATSC standard because manufacturers only included a single audio decoder in their products. Two decoders are required for many of these enhanced services.

Now the CE industry is scramblingas well, trying to keep up with IT industry companies that are becoming consumer electronics companies themselves.

We can expect to see a wide range of mobile TV products in the coming year. We may also see some of the features of the new ATSC-M/H standard finding their way into the TV in the family room. As silicon vendors add support for the M/H standard to their chips, these chips may be used in big screen TVs as well. This could help broadcasters develop services that can be delivered using features of the M/H standard to all TVs, not just mobile devices.

For example, a movie download service for fixed receivers could be delivered using the more efficient 8-VSB modulation and the newer, more efficient H.264 video compression algorithm.

For this to work, broadcasters will need to change their thinking. Legacy thinking dictates that broadcasters only support those features that exist in nearly every TV. To survive, broadcasters must be willing to take the risk of developing services that will only be supported by a subset of receivers, in hopes that this will drive demand for ATSC II receivers.

Who knows? The additional training signals in the M/H standard may eventually help improve reception for the legacy 8-VSB signals that broadcasters will continue to use because of the much higher bit rate efficiency. At the same time, use of the M/H standard will result in a significant bit penalty that may put even more stress on services delivered using what remains for 8-VSB broadcasts.

The M/H standard is moving through the final phases of documentation and balloting, and a final draft version is expected to be elevated as a candidate standard by the end of the year. Public demonstrations and private tests have and will continue to take place as the new standard is finalized. These tests are designed to examine both the performance of the standard and to determine what kind of services the public may find compelling. The Open Mobile Video Coalition recently announced its financial support for the required field and lab testing of the complete candidate standard. (For more information, see “Web links.”)

Based on limited feedback about these tests, it appears that the M/H standard will require considerable overhead. For the most robust quarter rate modes, it is expected that about 18 percent of the bits allocated to the service will be available for actual service payloads. In the half rate mode, this will increase to about 38 percent of the service allocation.

Interesting times

You are about to be given another chance to turn the ship around. Those who are on a sinking ship may want to retire or jump into the lifeboats and let a new generation of TV broadcasters create a new wireless medium. This is, after all, the major competitive advantage of broadcasting over the multichannel subscription services.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs.

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