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Next-Generation Broadcasting Set for Field Testing; Questions Remain

LAS VEGAS—At the NAB Show, demonstrations of proposed methods for what is being referred to as ATSC 3.0 were presented in the exhibit booths of established transmission manufacturers, while Advanced Television Systems Committee members discussed progress in a special session.

A wide range of questions still remains about the timing and effectiveness of an over-the-air (OTA) system to compete with cellular carrier services that now reliably support consumer mobile devices. The goal is to deploy a system that will enable broadcasters to deliver 4K (known as UHDTV), HD and SD signals in the same 6 MHz channel now used for HTDV and/or SD transmissions.

GatesAir (formerly Harris Broadcast) and Rohde & Schwarz both hosted demonstrations of their respective technologies and said that the required hardware (exciters) will be ready for real-world testing this summer. GatesAir said it was in negotiations with several broadcasters located in different terrestrial environments that had volunteered to participate, although it would not say specifically who or exactly when.

Representatives at both transmitter companies admitted lukewarm reception form visiting broadcast at the show. “It’s about 50-50 between those who are excited about this new frontier and the skeptics,” said Neil Smith, an R&D engineer with Zenith. As they have with the current ATSC M/N mobile handheld standard that leverages a slice of a broadcasters’ allotted 6 MHz channel for delivery to mobile devices, Zenith (and its parent LG Electronics) is working with GatesAir to promote its OFDM-style delivery scheme. The pair supported 8-VSB for M/H, but signal propagation difficulties indoors, in congested urban areas and in a moving vehicle, as well as a lack of consumer-friendly devices with embedded receiver chips have stymied massive consumer adoption and financial success.

Proposals are now coming into the ATSC from GatesAir, Rohde & Schwarz, the DVB and others for what would make up a new standard and the committee has said it will evaluate all and select one or a combination of two or more to make up a standard for ATSC 3.0 broadcasting. GatesAir is pushing what it calls its FutureCast terrestrial OTA broadcast system that offers a combination of capabilities for fixed, portable and mobile use. The system is a joint development of LG, Zenith and GatesAir. A series of flexible parameters allow broadcasters to mix these diverse services within a single RF channel. That means UHDTV transmission to TVs as well as tablets and high-speed reception on smartphones. Gates representatives at the show said the FutureCast system is designed for common data formats (Internet Protocol and Transport Stream) via proprietary compression algorithms.

“FutureCast is designed to fully meet broadcasters’ requirements for the ATSC 3.0 physical layer and advances the goal of moving rapidly to next-gen broadcasting,” said Dr. Skott Ahn, president and chief technology officer, LG Electronics, and co-developer of the FutureCast system, in a prepared statement. “Because it’s a complete solution that optimizes the inter-related aspects of the system, FutureCast can help accelerate the ATSC process.”

Those interested expressed dismay at the slow pace of standardization process, expected to be finalized in 2016 or 2017. During a keynote session at the show with NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith, Univision Communications owner Haim Saban implored the industry to get on with it.

“I believe it is vital for the broadcasting industry to develop a standard that will allow us to deliver our content to all platforms, all the time,” he said. “If we do not develop that new transmission standard, we’ll be left back in the 20th century.”

Rich Redmond, GatesAir’s chief product officer, said FutureCast’s developers “share broadcasters’ sense of urgency” in advancing rapidly toward the next-generation broadcast standard. “In light of the rapidly evolving media and regulatory landscape, FutureCast represents technology breakthroughs that will give broadcasters the transmission technology needed to support new business models and compete effectively in the 21st century.”

Interestingly, where previously the former Harris Broadcast was steadfast in its support of a “single stick” approach to mobile transmission, it now recommends the use of an enhanced version of OFDM across a single frequency network, that is a series of small transmission towers circling a given market, in tandem with existing high towers to improve reception on the ground. Ted Staros, director of the Systems Engineering Group for GatesAir, said lab tests have shown a 30 percent increase in data throughout -- more bits translates to better reception -- and improved multipath performance, when compared to the current DTV standard being used by broadcasters for HDTV and M/H transmissions.

“Our proposal is all encompassing,” Staros said. “FutureCast includes time slots for future extensions, to support LTE and future technologies as they emerge. This system meets broadcasters’ requirements for what’s called the next-generation physical layer and adds forward error correction coding and signal constellations, that promise improved performance over traditional OFDM modulation approaches. It even addresses the co-channel and adjacent-channel interference issues related to UHF spectrum repacking.”

Given all of this, even members of the Zenith team working on the FutureCast system expressed the realities of deploying any type of ATSC 3.0 standard, as it will require local broadcasters to buy new exciters for their transmitters (that use more power than current ATDC exciters) and consumer to purchase as yet unavailable televisions and mobile devices with corresponding receiver chips.

“This transition will be harder and more challenging than the transition to DTV,” said Tim Laud, senior member technical staff at Zenith’s U.S-based R&D lab. “No question about it.”

“It is vital for us to have a new transmission standard,” Saban said. “People that work on this, they have their marching orders: Make it freakin’ happen.”

Adding to the uncertainty of successful deployment of a new broadcast standard, there’s no guarantee the FCC will mandate the new standard, as they have with the current ATSC DTV delivery system, and the government is not likely to fund a new DTV tuner box program like the one that was mismanaged and cost billions of dollars during the first transition from analog to digital television. Consumers then will have to either buy a new TV or subscribe to some type of subscription pay-TV or OTT service.