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SMPTE Presents Met.Expo.2024

ATSC 3.0 Marches Forward

March 30, 2021

Madeleine Noland, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), chuckles when asked to contextualize the status of the ongoing rollout of the ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV standard since it was officially introduced to the U.S. market in 2018. Considering the rollout is still pushing ahead despite the limiting factors of a global pandemic in the last year, she feels the process is going extremely well.

“At the CES 2020 show, someone said to me, ‘what’s taking so long?’ I looked at them, and thought, ‘taking so long?’ This thing is going fast,” she recalls. “It was at the 2018 CES that the ATSC announced the standard was ready in the U.S. Then, later that year, at NAB 2018, representatives of major broadcasters stood up on a stage and said they supported the new standard and were going ahead. And then, around the NAB 2019 show, broadcasters announced the 62 markets across the country that they were committing to transitioning to ATSC 3.0. And following that, in September of 2019, the CTA the CES Consumer Technology Association, rolled out the name and logo for NextGen TV and declared they were going to put out products that meet the ATSC 3.0 specifications with that logo on them.

“And then we got to CES 2020, and the TV manufacturers announced they would do about 20-plus new [television] models that will be ATSC 3.0 compliant. And right now, they are getting a couple dozen new TV models out to countries around the world. So overall, I think we have done pretty well when you consider we are just hitting three years from the declared completion of the standard and there has been a global pandemic along the way.”

The rollout involves two key transitions—the transitioning of a terrestrial broadcast infrastructure from the ATSC 1.0 universe into the ATSC 3.0 universe, and the push of consumer products into the marketplace that will be ATSC 3.0 compliant. As Noland noted, where products are concerned, the industry is on a healthy transitional pace, and the infrastructure plan isn’t far behind.

“At CES 2020 in January of 2020, COVID had not reached full impact, so the tradeshow went on as expected, and it was pretty bullish in terms of ATSC 3.0,” she explains. “At the time, as I said, the broadcasters were intending to launch 62 markets, and they were expecting to get it all done in 2020. And between the three largest television makers—Sony, Samsung, and LG—they expected to launch 20 models with NextGen TV capabilities, and that got done, despite COVID.  

“So, yes, COVID had an impact. It slowed manufacturing. It slowed the ability of many stations to get anything done, and it changed financial pictures in many organizations. But what did happen was the TV manufacturers not only met, but exceeded, their goals. By the end of 2020, there were more than those 20 models available—I think it was 24. And then, at this year’s virtual CES show, a number of announcements came out that suggested the number of [compatible] models is basically doubling.”

Noland points out the industry is also already offering two ATSC 3.0 compliant set-top boxes to connect to older model televisions to make them compliant, as well. Those two boxes are the HDHomeRun 4k Connect system and Zapperbox. And then, she adds, “we also have some new chip vendors getting into the business, and there are other developments happening [on the consumer product side of the equation], as well.”

"Remaking the existing terrestrial broadcast infrastructure, by contrast, is more complicated, Noland says, given the pandemic’s interference. The spectrum repack process (see below), for instance, was slowed after initially being scheduled to finish in July of 2020, “plus it’s been real hard to get engineers into buildings, and tower crews together,” Noland adds.

Nevertheless, the industry did push forward to formally launch 20 of the 62 targeted markets in the last year. And Noland says “we expect them to complete their 62-market goal possibly this year, or with a little bleed over into Q1 of 2022. But in either case, once those 62 markets—which include all the top 40 broadcast markets in the country—are launched, we will be reaching roughly 75 percent of US households.”

Noland adds that the pandemic has primarily been the only significant, long-lasting impediment to the rollout’s progress, and this is largely due to the technical logistics and details involved with upgrading broadcast systems from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0.

“While the transition goes on, we have to transmit ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 at the same time, because we cannot orphan viewers,” she says. “They are not compatible systems. If you have a 1.0 TV and don’t get a compatible set-top box, you suddenly wouldn’t get TV anymore [if the transition was done suddenly, without offering both options in the meanwhile]. Therefore, 1.0 and 3.0 are simulcast in [markets where the transition is moving forward], and we don’t have the extra spectrum for every station to do that. So what happens is broadcasters in the same market have to forge alliances.”

What Noland means is that broadcast entities in every transitioning market have to form some sort of agreement to make sure that each of their signals are being simulcast as both 1.0 and 3.0 terrestrial signals until the transition is fully complete.

“They have to band together,” she elaborates. “You can’t do 3.0 and 1.0 off the same transmitter at the same time. So in order to launch a market, you got to have a buddy, and ideally, more than one buddy. Preferably, there are three or four broadcasters banding together to do this. In markets with duopolys, where one broadcaster owns two stations in a market, that broadcaster already has his buddy—he’s ready to go. Those two stations can pair up without needing a legal agreement between entities. So you can see that markets where there are natural partners are the markets that are easiest to change.”

Connected to that consideration is the issue of the ongoing repack. Noland explains that when the Federal Government auctioned off broadcast spectrum for mobile use in recent years, there was what she calls “a ripple effect” on all TV channel broadcast locations across the country.

“It had a huge domino effect, where half the stations in the country had to vacate the upper 84 megahertz of the spectrum and change their frequency band,” she continues. “That’s a big undertaking because what happened was that the broadcasters who had to change frequencies needed, for the most part, new transmitters, new antennas—a lot of gear, actually. The way the auction was set up, those that had to move were promised that the Federal Government was going to reimburse them for replacing their gear.”

And that, in turn, meant that about a thousand broadcasters, according to Noland, got to repack, as a station’s move from one frequency to another is called in industry parlance, “and they got a lot of shiny new gear.” The other broadcasters did not get such gear. That means that for those who repacked, upgrading to ATSC 3.0 is not as heavy a capital expenditure as it is for those who did not repack.

This situation therefore impacts which markets are ready to transition and when, and which are or are not close. Noland says “it’s a much heavier lift” right now for stations in markets where there are not many natural partners. You can find the latest ATSC 3.0 deployment map here to understand which markets are well on their way, which are in the planning stages, and which have not even begun to consider the proposition yet for various reasons.

“The other thing about it is that channel sharing arrangements get more complicated when there are more channels in a market, and more diginets or sub-channels,” she says. “So you look at big markets like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago—they are huge, complicated puzzles in terms of figuring out channel sharing arrangements. They are on the docket and will get done, but those are the hard ones. 

Still, despite any or all regulatory, business, technical, political, logistical, or health-and-safety challenges that could possibly arise, Noland insists that the full and complete transition to ATSC 3.0 is inevitable in the near future if, for no other reason than the fact that it’s empirically better than ATSC 1.0.

“You have to realize, when ATSC 1.0 was developed, we were using 2G analog phones that were about the size of a Buick,” she says. “We were using dial-up modems that did maybe 19 kilobits per second. We were all using Windows 3.1, and we watched VHS tapes. That’s why a highly significant portion of the broadcast community feels as though we couldn’t make it in the long term if we didn’t upgrade.”

She also points out the transition will not be relegated only to the United States. Noland emphasizes that ATSC is an international organization, with engineers from all over the world, and the original standard became quite global over the years.

“ATSC 1.0 is in use right now in all of North America, so that’s the US, Canada, and Mexico, most of the Caribbean, and a couple other places in the Western Hemisphere,” Noland says. “It was also in use in South Korea, a country that has now transitioned to 3.0 ahead of the United States. They already have about 70 percent of their country lit up with 3.0. In addition to all that, there are other countries that have asked about ATSC 3.0. Right now, there are four over-the-air television standards in the world, and all of them are international. There is one deployed in Europe, Russia, most of Africa. There is one developed in Japan, that is also in most of South America. And there is one that was developed by China.

“Whether ATSC 3.0 will be adopted by the many countries that are still on first-generation or even analog television systems, it is to be determined. Brazil has put out a call for proposals because they want a next-gen system—ATSC 3.0 and other systems are being considered. Right now, the ATSC has two implementation teams in this area. We have the Brazil implementation team, to help them explore 3.0, and we also have an India implementation team. They are interested in broadcast traffic offload scenarios, because there are a lot of people in India that do not have televisions, but who do watch TV on their phones. There are about 1.2 billion wireless phones in India, so their cellular network is really busy. So it’s an international effort, but pretty much country by country. But I would say 3.0 is absolutely an international standard.”

Meanwhile, on a landscape that is becoming increasingly mobile, wireless, streamed, and remote, with a vibrant and superior cellular network standard, 5G, on its way, one might ask why updating the terrestrial broadcasting infrastructure is that crucial to begin with. Noland insists that a traditional broadcast television infrastructure will always be important for many reasons, and once updated, should fit snugly into a hybrid world where broadcast and OTT approaches will need to co-exist and often work in concert, as she suggests the broadcast traffic offload scenario that India is pondering exemplifies.

“For one thing, a high-power, high-tower television broadcasting infrastructure is extremely resilient—it does not go down,” she explains. “Even during the 9/11 tragedy, television stations in New York City were up. Some networks had a brief interruption, because only one network had their redundant facility survive. But that network was able to host everybody else within hours. Same thing when Hurricane Irma hit South Florida in 2017. High-power, high-tower infrastructure is very resilient. They have backup diesel power that lasts days, they have redundant facilities, which is important on a number of levels, including for emergency messaging. So you can think of broadcasters as curators of emergency messaging. They are tied to their communities, they know what information those communities need, they have strong relationships with the local emergency management community. It’s very important in that respect.

“But the other thing is, we need to think of broadcasting as a one-to-many type infrastructure, and one that will be extremely efficient with the advent of ATSC 3.0. That means you will have a really big pipe to deliver lots of data to a lot of devices—it’s infinitely scalable in terms of the number of devices the system can communicate with. And when it comes to popular content—if millions of people are watching the same thing at the same time, why would it be more efficient to send everybody their own [online] stream? It sometimes might be more efficient to send it through broadcast channels. And even for popular content that people might watch on demand, you could imagine offloading some of that traffic from ISP networks—sort of like pre-positioning the content in the home in advance. If you could use the broadcast network with a storage device in the home, you could pre-position that content for, say, 20 percent of the people who might want to watch it. Moving 20 percent of the content traffic off the network will save a lot of bandwidth on your ISP network and improve the quality of the experience for everybody.”

Noland suggests there are other use cases that illustrate the power of a broadcast network to work in concert with, rather than in competition with, an ISP network. There is what she calls “a sweet spot for such [applications] for delivering data that broadcast is beautifully suited for. Therefore, broadcast should always play a role in an ecosystem of delivery networks. Pick the best network for the job at the time—broadcast for the ‘one to many’ applications, and the Internet for ‘one to one.’”

She also believes that the arrival of a powerful 5G cellular infrastructure will not change this paradigm for many of the reasons outlined. But she also reminds that neither 5G nor any other likely cellular format on the horizon will ever be able to penetrate as many American households as broadcast television already does—“in the U.S., about 98 percent of the country,” Noland emphasizes. “5G is not going to get to the rural areas of the country for a long time, if ever, because that would be very expensive. So one thing that is valuable for broadcast is that we have an existing infrastructure—one we are upgrading, yes, but we don’t have to build it all out from scratch. So that heralds the idea of modernized broadcast networks being able to deliver data for television or otherwise over a television network. 

Finally, Noland points out that one of the biggest challenges in upgrading the broadcast infrastructure to ATSC 3.0 revolves around the issue of educating average consumers on what it is, and why it is important. To that end, broadcasters have created a new consumer-oriented Website designed to educate people about NextGen TV. Among the advantages consumers will learn about regarding viewing content on ATSC 3.0-capable devices, she says, are the various features and upgrades in picture and sound that are being integrated into the system. She points to, for example, things like superior viewing of 1080p HD imagery with High Dynamic Range (HDR) together with a dialogue enhancement feature that has been dubbed Voice+, which allows viewers to alter the sound levels of dialogue, music, and effects to suit their particular needs, and the gradual introduction of UHD/4K content, along with a range of coming interactive apps for NextGen televisions, and much more. Click here to check out panels and news from CES 2021 earlier this year on plans and developments regarding the ATSC 3.0 rollout. 

Tag(s): Featured , News , ATSC3.0

Michael Goldman

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