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RF Technology: A Look Back at 2014 and Forward into 2015

Looking back on 2014, I remember a lot of activity but few big accomplishments.

The FCC made progress towards the incentive auction of UHF TV spectrum, but not enough to avoid having it slip into 2016. We do have a better idea of what's coming after the release of the Public Notice on competitive bidding procedures for the broadcast incentive auction. For now it looks like channels 14-36 will be safe, but some stations may be stranded in the middle of the 600 MHz band sharing spectrum with wireless carriers or unlicensed devices. The FCC has outlined methods for avoiding interference between wireless broadband and TV, but questions remain on how well it will work. Given the high power of UHF TV broadcasters and the ability of UHF signals to travel great distances under certain atmospheric conditions, I expect that on occasion there will be much more interference than expected, especially between TV stations and base stations should TV stations be located in the uplink band.

At the end of 2013, broadcasters and the Department of Defense agreed to share the 2 GHz broadcast auxiliary service spectrum, but I have yet to hear how this sharing is working out. We probably won't know until DoD has to move operations from some the spectrum it agreed to share or give up for wireless broadband.

One bit of good news for TV broadcasters – throughout 2014, more companies offered more products for over-the-air TV reception, including an unamplified flat antenna from Channel Master for $10!. Channel Master and other companies are offering over-the-air set-top boxes with recording (DVR) capability and even streaming capability. One recent entry is TabletTV, which officially launched in the San Francisco Bay area on Dec. 22.

ATSC is busy with the hard work of reaching consensus on ATSC 3.0 technology. Look for a candidate standard in 2015. There was an in-booth demonstration of the LG-Zenith-GatesAir technology at the 2014 NAB Show and an over-the-air demonstration of their “Futurecast” system in Madison, Wisc. in October. One Media has been conducting field testing in Austin, Texas. I'm looking forward to seeing other systems demonstrated in 2015. Transitioning to ATSC 3.0—which is not compatible with the current U.S. ATSC standard—will not be easy but will be necessary to provide the higher data rates needed for improved pictures, new services and reception on devices not hooked up to outdoor antennas, and ideally devices with built-in antennas.

Looking ahead, TV broadcasters will have to decide how important over-the-air broadcasting is to their business. The incentive auction will give them a chance to cash-out and distribute programming via cable and the Internet only. For those broadcasters who want to maintain control of their distribution, many will a face channel change on a tight deadline with limited resources as a result of the incentive auction. To reach viewers using indoor antennas and allow reception on portable devices (assuming the wireless carriers permit it on the devices they sell), they will have to plan to transition to ATSC 3.0. I find it interesting that companies like Google and Facebook are making an effort to build their own distribution channels—Google fiber is a practical example—and even looking at unusual technologies such as balloons and drones to reach users.

5G wireless technology holds the potential for data bandwidths so large that the cost to stream wireless HD video content or even UHDTV content for both the broadcaster and the viewer should drop to the cost of audio streaming today, maybe even less. What impact will that have on over-the-air TV broadcasting? 5G speeds require frequencies well above the UHF TV band, which should lead to less competition for what spectrum TV has left after the incentive auction. This could allow some new opportunities for broadcasters, opportunities that should be possible with ATSC 3.0, such as broadcasting to “the Internet of Things.”

What happens in 2015 with regard to the incentive auction and ATSC 3.0 could have a big impact on whether over-the-air TV broadcasting still exists in the U.S. five or 10 years from now.

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.