Both an ATSC 3.0 single-frequency network (SFN) launch in Dallas and a “model market” test in Phoenix have equipment ready to go and are simply awaiting legal approval to turn on, which could come as early as tomorrow.
As broadcasters pack their bags for next week’s NAB Show in Las Vegas to see the latest technology and discuss their industry’s future, stations in two of the country’s biggest markets are set to begin broadcasting with the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard.
At press time, a trial of datacasting and advanced advertising with a single-frequency network (SFN) in Dallas and “model market” test of improved pictures (4K) and sound and advanced advertising in Phoenix were geared up and simply awaiting clearing up some legal and regulatory issues to turn on, which could come as early as tomorrow.
Both efforts involve stations pooling spectrum so they can maintain their current ATSC 1.0 programming services while experimenting with the new 3.0 services. If successful, participants say, the trials could evolve into permanent operations.
“We’re creating the real deal,” says Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is developing the Dallas SFN in partnership with Nexstar, Univision and American Tower Corp.
“What is it one is going to do with the 3.0 capability, what are the new businesses that are getting driven by SFN’s, and how do we present that to the public and broadcast community?”
Anne Schelle, managing director of the Pearl TV consortium, strikes a similar tone in describing the Pearl-led Phoenix trial, which involves 11 stations from eight groups.
“Our goal is actually to help the industry develop the frameworks and baseline services that need to be there for both broadcasters and consumers,” Schelle says. “It’s figuring out what is a go-to-market product and service, and it’s bringing all stakeholders in and aligning around that. This is end-to-end business model testing, not only developing on the transmitter side but also developing on the receiver side.”
Services to be tested included interactive and targeted advertising, 4K, immersive audio and enhanced content through the mixing of the 3.0 signals with broadband signals.
On that note, South Korean electronics giant LG is delivering its first prototype 3.0 receivers to the Phoenix market this week. The smart TVs have 1.0 and 3.0 tuners along with internet connectivity — the key to some of the advanced services.
“We are really excited to have LG step up to the plate,” Schelle says.
Other consumer electronics manufacturers are expected to bring 3.0 prototypes to Phoenix. “A large piece of this will be consumer testing in the market, so we can develop a go-to-market strategy with our receiver partners,” says Schelle.
While the Phoenix and Dallas trials are focused mostly on business issues, not technical measurements, a big component of setting up each was figuring out which stations would launch the 3.0 services and which would continue to service the incompatible 1.0 sets.
The next step was reaching contractual agreements on channel sharing, getting FCC approval for such arrangements, notifying MPVDs in the market of channel changes, and other legal and administrative hoops that the participants were still jumping through early this week.
Involving multiple stations creates more potential for 3.0 but also breeds complexity.
In Phoenix, participating stations include Scripps’s KNXV, an ABC affiliate; Fox’s KSAZ and KUTP (MNT); Meredith’s KPHO (CBS) and KTVK (independent); Nexstar’s KASW (CW); Telemundo’s KTAZ (Telemundo); Tegna’s KPNX (NBC); Univision’s KFPH-CD (UniMas) and KTVW-DT (Univision); and Arizona State University’s KAET (PBS).
Pearl TV has created a technical infrastructure to stack 3.0 services from multiple stations, with the help of various vendors including Dielectric (UT8D7F-3K UHF bandpass filter); ENENSYS (ATSCheduler Broadcast Gateway); GatesAir (Maxiva UAXTE-3 UHF transmitter); Harmonic (Electra X encoding and multiplexing system); and Triveni Digital (GuideBuilder XM signaling, announcement and transport generator and StreamScope XM monitoring and analysis).
“The current infrastructure in Phoenix is capable of supporting eight stations,” says RF consultant Dennis Wallace of Meintel, Sgrignoli & Wallace, who has been working on the project. “That’s the initial plan, but that may change with various scenarios.”
How many bits one can send through the 3.0 pipe at once “really depends on the format of video,” notes Wallace, as the standard can do 4K UHD, HD, SD and mobile streams with varying levels of signal robustness. A 6 MHz channel can probably yield 22-24 megabits per second replicating the same coverage as today, he says, but that number goes down if sending very robust signals in part of the channel.
In Phoenix, Pearl has selected Univision’s KFPH-CD to broadcast the 3.0 services. (Univision also owns another station with the same call letters in Flagstaff, Ariz.).
That station currently broadcasts an HD Unimas feed as well as two standard-def diginets, GetTV and Escape. To clear the channel for 3.0, Unimas programming will move to a subchannel on the other Univision station in the market, KTVW, while the GetTV diginet will be going to Tegna’s KPNX and the Escape diginet will be going to Scripps’ KNXV.
“It’s a proof of concept of how we manage the spectrum in the market by divvying up the ATSC 1.0 signals,” says Wallace.
(Editor’s note: The term “lighthouse station” is often bandied about in discussions and reports of deployment. Some define the “lighthouse” as the first station in a market to carry 3.0 services from multiple stations, while others describe it as the last station in a market to offer ATSC 1.0 services from multiple stations to legacy sets. To avoid confusion, we won’t use the term, particularly since ATSC 1.0 programming is being spread across multiple stations in both the Phoenix and Dallas tests. Savvy engineers suggest a more useful term would be a “nightlight station,” to describe the single station in a market that continues to broadcast 1.0 signals after everyone has launched 3.0. We’ll wait and see if that gets traction.)
To broadcast 3.0 in Dallas, the participating broadcasters have set up two one-megawatt 3.0 transmitters with tall towers, supplemented by three 100-kilowatt transmitters broadcasting at lower towers strategically located elsewhere in the market.
Supplying the spectrum for the 3.0 signals are Univision’s KSTR, a UniMas affiliate, and Sinclair-operated independent KTXD.
The ATSC 1.0 programming on those stations will be shifted to subchannels on Univision’s KUVN (Univision), Tribune’s KDAF (CW) and a not-yet-identified station, possibly a noncommercial one.
Aitken says Sinclair has tapped Ateme to provide encoding equipment to both compress the ATSC 1.0 programming for channel sharing and prepare 3.0 content.
Other vendors in the Dallas project include Hitachi-Comark (transmitters), ENENSYS (gateway resource scheduler), Digicap (ESG and signaling), Dielectric (band-pass-filters, transmission line and antennae), Monroe Electronics (EAS Digital Alert Systems), TestTree (monitoring and control), Acrodyne Services (integration), ONE Media (configuration and design) and Progira (SFN coverage modeling).
Based on the “nitty-gritty” technical work Sinclair has already done in Washington and Baltimore since 2016, Aitken isn’t worried about the SFN working well in Dallas.
The real thrust is testing services like dynamic ad insertion and datacasting in a real-world environment.
“We’re on an accelerated timetable,” says Aitken, who notes that Sinclair will also be showing dynamic ad-insertion and delivery of 3.0 to an autonomous vehicle at the NAB Show next week in separage off-the-floor demonstrations.
Aitken says that when it comes to targeted advertising, the back-end technology involved with selling the spots is just as important as the ATSC technology that will deliver them to a TV set (whether it’s over the air or through a broadband connection).
And, not surprisingly for Sinclair — the country’s largest station group — he says scale will be important.
“We’re trying to rally the entire industry around a collective set of goals, a collective set of requirements, and create a new industry,” Aitken says. “Rather than we do our thing, and Tegna does their thing and another group does something else, we’ve all got to be doing the same thing. That creates an opportunity for more agencies to be selling into a unified environment.”
Scale is also important for maximizing spectrum efficiency, which is why the Dallas SNF is going up with two channels.
Two channels per market is the minimum. “You want underutilized capacity to work with the new business opportunities,” he says. “If you simply light up a single 3.0 in a market, you don’t have the capacity to invite new players in.”
According to Aitken, wireless companies involved with Narrowband-IoT [NB-IOT], a low-power wide-area radio technology designed to connect to Internet-of-Things devices, may get involved with 3.0 in Dallas.
Sinclair is in conversations with multiple NB-IOT providers, as well as Indian chip manufacturer Saankhya Labs, about using NB-IoT “to service the backchannel needs of ATSC 3.0,” Aitken says.
He adds that 3.0 technology might have other applications for NB-IoT spectrum, including mobile wireless services.
In the U.S., there are already several large spectrum players involved with NB-IoT. Dish Network announced last year that it will roll out an NB-IoT network on the 700 MHz “E-Block” licenses it acquired through an FCC auction back in 2008, and has subsequently said it will spend up to $1 billion to reach 70% of the country by March 2020. T-Mobile and Verizon have also announced NB-IoT deployments.
Aitken says the essential cost to convert from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0 for a single station is a few hundred thousand dollars, and there are “economies of an already built-out infrastructure on the SFN side.”
He says that if an SFN site is already built out in terms of tower infrastructure, adding a low-power transmitter, broadband antenna and transmission line might be around only $150,000 per site.
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