Stations Weigh ATSC 3.0 Investment Carefully

While big station groups are forging ahead with ATSC 3.0 deployments in Dallas and Phoenix, transmission vendors say most stations are taking a cautious approach to investing in the new standard. 

Transmitter vendors note that many stations have been buying transmitters, antennas and associated gear capable of higher power and vertical polarization to be ready to best exploit ATSC 3.0 in the future. Beyond that, most are waiting to see how business models shake out. 

Dick Fiore, CEO of transmitter manufacturer Hitachi-Comark, says the total cost of launching ATSC 3.0 service “really depends on what the broadcaster wants to do with ATSC 3.0,” particularly how many Physical Layer Pipes (PLPs), or disparate services with different reception requirements, a station wants to transmit within its 6 mhz.

If a broadcaster simply wants to put out “pretty pictures with 4K,” that can be done relatively inexpensively, says Fiore, perhaps for $200,000. Supporting multiple services like 4K UHD, SD, mobile and non-real-time data can ramp up the investment significantly, particularly when factoring in redundancies.

Studio-to-transmitter links can be a key consideration, as ATSC 3.0 transmitters need to be fed with an IP stream. RF consultant Dennis Wallace, who has been working on the Pearl TV deployment in Phoenix, says that one of the things that made KFPH-CD attractive as the launch station was that there was already an IP microwave STL in place on the 13-gigahertz band. He guesses that a growing number of stations, perhaps close to half, already have IP STLs that are capable of feeding several hundred megabits per second. Industry consolidation, including duopolies in TV and clusters in FM radio, is driving the technology.

“You need that big of a hose to feed all that content,” says Wallace, noting that single stations are more likely to have legacy systems.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Many stations have been upgrading their STLs to IP as they tackle the RF repack project, says John Payne IV, president of microwave vendor IMT-Vislink. Payne notes a lot of stations have STLs that are close to 20 years old, dating back to the original analog-to-digital transition. They are designed specifically to work with ATSC 1.0 transmitters using the SMPTE 310 or ASI protocols to send a single 19.39 Mbps stream.

With many stations slated to share transmission facilities after the repack, there is now a need to deliver multiple program streams to the transmitter site, which can be easily done with IP. IMT-Vislink makes a high-capacity IP-capable STL with its “all-indoor” Vislink IPLink, which sells for around $75,000 and is designed to be used with a radio located in the transmitter building at the base of the tower and a waveguide going up to the microwave receive dish on the tower. The system combines ASI and IP transport, delivers 250 Mbps of throughput and can also support bidirectional IP links to enhance newsgathering operations.

IMT-Vislink also makes a compact, outdoor-only point-to-point STL system, the IMT NuLinx IP Compact, that sells for $25,000 and may be particularly attractive for ATSC 3.0 SFNs that are targeting mobile TV applications. 

“Now you’re distributing over multiple transmitters, and you may be installing ten microwave links to do that,” says Payne. “But they don’t have to be all-indoor. You can use a lower-cost, all-IP connection.”

So far, direct investment in ATSC 3.0 has been relatively slow across the industry, says Ralph Bachofen, VP of sales and marketing for Triveni Digital. While a few large station groups are “punching ahead and doing testing,” smaller stations are holding back as they focus on the repack and channel-sharing. 

“But they’re definitely asking every single time, is this upgradeable to 3.0?” says Bachofen.

Triveni’s GuideBuilder product for generating electronic program guide metadata, known as PSIP (Program System and Information Protocol) in ATSC 1.0, is currently used by over 1,300 stations. The company has developed a next-generation model, GuideBuilder XM, to support similar requriments for ATSC 3.0 as well as a new version of its test & measurement product, StreamScope, that can monitor the both the IP and RF components of the new standard; both products are being used in Phoenix.

“I consider ourselves the plumber of ATSC 3.0,” says Bachofen.

He expects to see some meaningful deployment of ATSC 3.0, beyond the current test stations, in 2019.

“That’s what I think,” says Bachofen. “It also comes down to the receiver boxes, whether it’s home gateways or built into TVs. If there’s really not anything on the market being announced at CES next January, then that obviously might delay it.”


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