ATSC 3.0 Ready for its Close-Up

The future of over-the-air broadcasting via ATSC 3.0 was a hot topic at CCW in New York last week, especially during a couple of the panel discussions in the conference area. The question now is whether the new standard, which promises much, can get into the marketplace sooner rather than later so that broadcasters can catch up with new distribution methods that potentially could render over-the-air broadcasting redundant.

NAB CTO Sam Matheny laid out what ATSC 1.0 has accomplished: HD, multicasting, surround-sound delivery, electronic programming guides, closed captioning, and even mobile DTV. But computer speeds today are 1,000 times higher than they were when ATSC 1.0 became a reality. More important, the amount of video being consumed today continues to climb year over year. But over-the-air broadcasting is not part of the reason for that climb.

John Taylor, VP of public affairs and communications, LG Electronics, summed up the situation: “ATSC was revolutionary, and 1.0 served us well over the years. But the landscape has changed, and 3.0 is an opportunity to compete very effectively in the decades to come.”

Dave Siegler, VP, technical operations, Cox Media Group, stated clearly that ATSC 1.0 is terribly inefficient.

“What we need is a new platform that we can do various services and applications on,” he explained. “We need the ability to do datacasting, multichannels, non–real-time delivery, store-and-forward, and many things we don’t know about yet.”

That is one of the reasons a number of specialist groups are working to make sure ATSC 3.0 can become a reality. The overall “big picture” is addressed by Specialist Group S31; S32 looks at the physical-transport layer; S33, the management and organization of packets; and S34 focuses on applications and things like audio and image quality.

In terms of timing, the goal is to get ATSC 3.0 out to ballot by the end of 2015 or beginning of 2016. Among the changes would be a move to OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing), IP-based transport, HEVC video encoding, layered coding to allow a core and enhancements to be added on top, and hybrid TV to allow things like graphical overlays delivered outside of the main video-image signal.

“Today, we only have one bitrate, 19.39 Mbps, and one coverage area,” said Matheny. “But, with ATSC 3.0, you could have one coverage area with a lot of bits or different coverage areas with lesser bits, as there is a flexible bitrate. It will be up to broadcasters to decide their business model.”

Winston Caldwell, VP of spectrum engineering and advanced engineering, Fox Networks, opined that the way the system is coming together is very impressive and, to Matheny’s point, it will open up new revenue opportunities.

“It will be very flexible in terms of capacity vs. robustness,” Caldwell said, “and broadcasters can also drop in additional transmitters to increase coverage and raise reception power.”

Taylor noted that the ability to meet the needs of big-screen 4K viewers and small-screen mobile users is important: “The growing interest in 4K is certainly an important aspect of where things are going with 3.0, but more and more people are consuming content on the go. So 3.0 is an opportunity to reach consumers with local news and information.”

ATSC 3.0 will also allow broadcasters to play during emergency situations. The ‘big stick’ approach of broadcasting, supplemented with transmitters at different sites, offer far more survivability for delivering information in the event power loss knocks out information sources like broadband and cellular devices. The upshot? Broadcasters can once again brand themselves as “king of the mountain” when it comes to delivering life-saving services when others cannot.

Ultimately, the greatest promise of ATSC 3.0 is the opportunity to once again demonstrate broadcasters’ unique ability to bring a community together.