The hardest part of the ATSC 3.0 proposed broadcast standard to get one's head around is probably the IP transport piece. Over-the-air TV, as it stands, might have its distribution network issues, but they pale when compared to the Internet's limitations. The simple fact is that we watch a lot of television - something on the order of five hours a day per-person. About half of that is OTA television viewing. Some rural states receive 50 percent of all TV directly off air, while only 5 percent of viewers in market receive their TV directly off air. The other 50 to 95 percent watch via cable, satellite, or telcos. While there may be hundreds of cable networks and other video sources, only a bit more than half of programming consumed comes from sources other than OTA broadcast.

While the bulk of all Internet traffic is video by a wide margin, it is still a very small amount of the total video consumed. Video-on-demand (VoD) from OTT sources like NetFlix, Youtube, and Hulu, as well as the broadcast networks, is being consumed on devices that can be used nearly anywhere - including a lot of places OTA TV does not reach. Internet access and capacity is growing, consuming more RF wireless spectrum and reaching farther into the corners of the world. This is the gap ATSC 3.0 fills.

Only a sliver of TV viewing is delivered via IP, and the IP networks are a long way from having the capacity to deliver all of the TV consumers watch with the quality they expect. Right now, IPTV is a bit of a miracle; it is a bundle of buffers, sparingly supported multicast protocols, switches, edge servers, and best-effort adaptive streaming techniques. It is well understood that watching an Internet video may or may not be a good experience. Reflect on how the far rarer rain fades on direct-to-home satellite are considered by many viewers as an insufferable impairment.

The Growing World of IP Connectivity

The obvious way to fix IP distribution is to make a lot more of it. The other way is to broadcast the highly universally consumed video directly to gateways in the IP network that combine the regular Internet traffic with the broadcast high-capacity pipes. Like most people had in the last decade or so purchased and replaced a series of faster, better, and more wireless routers that connect home local area network (LAN) to the wider world via an Internet service provider's wide area network (WAN). Local network probably supports an ever-growing world of wired Ethernet devices and both a 2.5 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi local wireless network that pretty much covers home or apartment.

In the present time, everybody's home is filling up with "Internet of Things" (IoT) devices like thermostats and security cameras that connect via Wi-Fi. Add printers, scanners, tablets, smartphones, DVRs, games, smart TVs, and even early generation TV appliances like SiliconDust's HDHomeRun, Dish's Slingboxes, etc., to the home network through the gateway and consumer's devices can view and interact with OTA TV and each other at home and sometimes away via the Internet.

If consumer desires ultra-high-definition TV, the limitation of system is the connectivity via your ISP and OTA. Current OTA TV is of no help because it lacks the requisite bandwidth and support for the high-quality, high-efficiency codecs required.

This is the era of first adopters when it comes to home LANs supporting video, multiple screens, remote DVRs, and the like. One can do a lot, but the integration of all of the often incompatible pieces and the still clumsy and disparate user interfaces makes this more of a science experiment than a friendly, convenient, standard, universal platform that anyone can use. ATSC 3.0 would move this forward dramatically, simply because the platform would need to be easy to install and use and is universal.

With current OTA TV, connectivity is more refined - it connects an outdoor antenna to each TV set. ATSC 3.0 connects household gateway/router that probably includes some storage and DVR features to that OTA antenna. Now every IP device in any home's LAN coverage area has access to everything OTA and Internet. The 80-inch media room TV has something to watch, the portable devices do, too, and consumer can control DVRs and big screens from the devices that allow interaction with things like electronic program guides and media search engines.

Certainly, there will be ATSC 3.0 dongles with an F-connector on one end and an HDMI connector on the other end that will allow those older flat screens to continue to receive basic OTA TV. In that respect, converting traditional system from an OTA TV to ATSC 3.0 is fairly inexpensive and easy. On the other hand, it may be clumsy at first with maybe yet another remote control to deal with. The digital transition is history, flat screens and devices are there but all that is missing is a means to connect broadcast TV to them.

Role of the Local Station

The station's distribution network can be improved markedly with the addition of SFN boosters and DAS systems; more viewers on more devices are a profitable broadcast mantra. The transmission system represents a small piece of many stations' operating and capital costs. Although for most stations, ATSC 3.0 will come with far less expense than the DTV transition of 2009, it is also easy to spend more on SFN boosters with ATSC 3.0 than the single transmitter many ATSC 1.0 stations now employ.

The introduction of ATSC 3.0 also requires a transition plan for all of the stakeholders. The most likely scenario is that stations cooperate to operate some legacy ATSC 1.0 lighthouse stations to avoid obsoleting the current OTA TVs in the field. Throughout the world, the amount of UHF spectrum for broadcast TV is being reduced in favor of more spectrums for wireless services. The VHF spectrum is not so hotly contested, so a likely scenario is for lighthouse stations to set up temporary ATSC 1.0 condos where upwards of six or so stations occupy a given VHF ATSC 1.0 multiplex, even if only at standard definition levels.

It seems likely that regulations will allow this kind of transition without penalties in the must-carry environment. In any case, a market can start with one or a few 
ATSC 3.0 stations, converting and building out additional facilities and boosters over time, without significantly interrupting current programming or business. Stations and markets will determine the specifics and potentially each one is different.

Bottom Line

When it comes to ATSC 3.0, the broadcast industry is on its own. ATSC 3.0 is an amazing new standard, with amazing features and technical advances. But all of that will mean nothing if consumers are not aware of it.

In time, ATSC 3.0 TV will morph into a more interactive device in conjunction with your handheld devices. If technology grows as fast as smartphones with their array of apps and sensors, it is hard to predict where this goes. Gateways, TVs, devices, and the ecosystem will certainly become smarter and more capable with time. Broadcasters are obviously interested in what ATSC 3.0 can do to their bottom lines.




BroadcastAsia 2017

Digital version