While the mood was celebratory at Wednesday’s ATSC Next-Gen TV Conference, the focus was on what still needs to be done to broadcast robust 3.0 signals and create viable applications and businesses. Stations testing the new standard outlined their expansion plans for this year and beyond, while other participants said more work is needed on product development as well as interoperability testing.
ATSC 3.0 is moving ahead as broadcasters, media technology vendors and consumer electronics manufacturers tackle the nitty-gritty of implementing the new digital standard in real-world trials and of developing 3.0-compliant professional equipment and receivers.
That was the message yesterday from Washington where stakeholders gathered for the 2018 ATSC Next-Gen TV Conference.
While the mood was celebratory, given the progress 3.0 has made in the past year, particularly in Phoenix and Dallas, the focus was on what still needs to be done to broadcast robust 3.0 signals and create viable applications and businesses.
Early 3.0 stations outlined their expansion plans for this year and beyond, while ATSC “implementation teams” gave updates on key developments like personalization and interactivity, interoperability and advanced emergency alerting.
And the Society of Broadcast Engineers used the occasion to announce a partnership with ATSC to create a new SBE certification program that will identify a broadcast engineer as a “Specialist” in the IT-based ATSC 3.0 standard.
“While we are making great progress, we have not yet arrived,” said NAB CTO Sam Matheny in a keynote address in which he compared the 3.0 rollout to the massive road construction initiative in his home state of North Carolina a century ago.
While broadcasters and vendors have done all the necessary planning and design, Matheny said, they are still merely in the “earthwork phase” of the 3.0 rollout and both need to “double down” on their efforts to ensure the standard’s success.
Matheny noted the broad support shown for the new standard at the NAB Show in April, where more than 40 vendors demonstrated 3.0-compliant products. But, he said, more product development and interoperability testing is necessary, as evidenced by interoperability challenges faced by the 3.0 test station NAB and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) are currently running at Tribune’s WWJ Cleveland.
“In truth, you can’t test what hasn’t been built yet,” said Matheny.
Matheny credited South Korea, which began limited broadcasts with 3.0 in Seoul in May 2017, with driving much of the standard’s development. That point was echoed by Anne Schelle, managing director of the Pearl consortium of leading station groups, which has established Phoenix as an “ATSC Model Market” with the involvement of 12 stations.
“We wouldn’t be here without the Korean market driving this forward,” said Schelle, who revealed that FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly visited the Phoenix project last week to see the new standard in action on prototype consumer receivers.
“We were able to show ATSC 3.0 services on all three sets last week, LG, Samsung and Sony,” said Schelle. “To be honest, not everything worked. But the video played and we didn’t have to do much [to make it happen].”
In Phoenix, Pearl is exploring what Schelle calls the “core buckets” of what it sees as an early 3.0 service, including content protection and conditional access; network simulcasting; addressable advertising and audience data; and “modern application experiences and signal quality,” including a user interface that is as intuitive as Netflix, Hulu or Roku.
To take advantage of 3.0’s broadband capability, Pearl is working with Cox Cable in Phoenix, said Schelle, who added that the Pearl consortium hopes to light up a second 3.0 stick by November.
While Schelle hopes to see 3.0 consumer receivers in meaningful volume by 2020 (and perhaps even in late 2019), that lags well behind the pace set by South Korea.
Korean broadcasters SBS, MBC and KBS have deployed 3.0 to offer 4K UHD service in four more cities last December, she said. The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang also provided the opportunity to show the opening and closing ceremonies and 10 sports in 4K UHD, as well as to test interactive TV, with the Tiviva “home portal,” and mobile TV services.
In launching UHD services with 3.0, Korean broadcasters were keeping pace with paid satellite and IPTV services that have been delivering UHD since 2014, said Jay Jeon, industry promotion manager for RAPA, the government-funded organization that promotes broadcasting and associated technologies (including TV set manufacturers) in Korea.
Today, one of out every two TVs sold in South Korea has UHD capability, and by 2027 the country plans to shut off ATSC 1.0 completely, he said.
On the production front, about 15% of content in Korea is produced in native UHD, says Jeon, and RAPA hopes to see that hit 50% by 2021 and 100% by 2027.
RAPA is also busy promoting 3.0 technology to other countries looking to upgrade their digital TV standards. Canada, Mexico and Brazil have all expressed interest in 3.0, said Jeon. He had just traveled to Washington from the Dominican Republic, which is now working with South Korea to explore the new standard as well.
Like their U.S. counterparts, Korean broadcasters have been facing gradually declining viewership and advertising revenues. But Jeon says they view the 3.0 opportunity differently.
“South Korea has embraced one 4K UHD channel, while the U.S. is more focused on multiple channels and mobile,” said Jeon.
Unlike their South Korean counterparts, U.S. 3.0 proponents are not fully aligned in their 3.0 planning.
While some early adopters like WRAL Raleigh, N.C., are broadcasting 4K UHD today, other 3.0 proponents like Sinclair Broadcast Group see a bigger opportunity in mobile services and datacasting.
In Dallas, Sinclair has teamed with Tribune, Nexstar, Univision, American Tower and Dish Network in exploring services via a single-frequency transmission network (SFN), including mobile handheld, mobile automotive, home next-gen gateways and home next-gen “TV” receivers.
“Mobile-first has clearly been the strategy Sinclair has been laying out for three years now,” said Mark Aitken, Sinclair VP of advanced technology. “And we believe it can come to fruition in the Dallas marketplace.”
Lynn Claudy, SVP of technology for the NAB, said that the government-driven 3.0 push in South Korea is different from the U.S. rollout, which he likens to a “petri dish” where broadcasters will experiment to see what business models survive.
He noted that broadcasters aren’t beholden to any one business model with 3.0, since they can adjust their “physical layer pipes” (PLPs) to deliver different services within their spectrum from one day to the next. For example, a station could choose to offer 4K sports broadcasts on weekends but devote its precious bits to mobile and interactive services during the week, he said.
However, what the NAB/CTA testing at WWJ Cleveland has already proven is that the new standard is easier to receive than ATSC 1.0, said Claudy, regardless of the particular service.
He presented results of field testing from the Cleveland market conducted in February and March of this year, gauging the reception of four different PLPs with varying signal-to-noise ratios at 100 sites across the Cleveland market at receiver antenna heights of both 30 feet and 12 feet, making for some 800 measurements in all.
The different PLPs included a high-data-rate mode of 28 megabits per second and an “ATSC 1-ish” mode at 19 Mbps, both at 256QAM modulation; a “handheld” mode using 16QAM with more robust reception at 8 Mbps; and a super-robust mobile PLP using QPSK modulation at 4 Mbps.
The results were encouraging, with the handheld and mobile modes both working at over 90% of the sites and producing comparable performance at both antenna heights; the mobile PLP was receivable by the 30-foot antenna up to 50 miles out. More important, said Claudy, reception performed as expected at over 80% of sites for all four PLPs when the signal strength was above the recommended carrier-to noise-threshold.
“Most of the surprises were happy surprises,” said Claudy, speaking privately after the presentation. “The sites where we couldn’t get successful reception, that was all due to a lack of signal level, not multipath or interference problems. Basically, we don’t have to worry about multipath anymore.”
That will make service planning a lot easier with 3.0 than it was with ATSC 1.0, he said, for “as long as you’ve got enough signal level, you’re OK.”
That said, Claudy cautioned broadcasters from getting into “wishful thinking” about what the new standard can do. While high data rates, full market coverage and robust mobile reception are all possible with 3.0, one can generally achieve only two of those goals at the same time, a condition Claudy described as “pick two.”
“You can have robust reception and cover the market, but you are going to compromise the data rate,” said Claudy. “If you want all three, then you have to think about SFNs.”
Saturating the market with a high enough level of signal to address all device types is exactly what Sinclair aims to do with its SFN in Dallas, where high-power 3.0 signals from two tall towers are supplemented by lower-power signals transmitted from three smaller towers across the market.
Aitken recalled MediaFLO, a now-defunct mobile TV venture from Qualcomm that launched a decade ago using a low-power SFN architecture, in explaining the approach.
“If you want to look at the entirety of the U.S. and build something, what are you confronted with?” said Aitken. “Think of MediaFLO as a starting point — then think of MediaFLO on steroids.”