April’s NAB Show will see a meeting of an umbrella group that will try to move beyond all the different, incompatible broadcast television standards to single, next-generation world standard within the next two to five years. The group, the Future of Broadcast Television (FoBTV), is the brainchild of ATSC’s Mark Richer and NHK’s Keiichi Kubota. Richer makes a compelling case for its mission that includes ensuring that consumers would be able to take their mobile devices across international borders with confidence that they keep on working. The work the FoBTV committee deserve the full support of the U.S. broadcasting industry.
On the last day of next month’s NAB Show, some of the most prominent broadcast technologists from around the world will meet in a conference room within the Las Vegas Convention Center. Their mission: elect officers for a new group whose purpose will be to oversee the creation of a single world broadcasting standard to replace the hodge-podge of incompatible standards that has complicated television engineering, manufacturing and production since the dawning of TV.
In some sense, the meeting with will be anti-climatic since the big decision to seek a world standard was made last November at a meeting of many of the same technologist in Shanghai. The gathering produced a declaration signed by 13 representatives of most of the highly developed nations of the world, including China.
But the election of a chairman and other officers for what’s come to be called the Future of Broadcast Television (FoBTV) is a major step. It marks the beginning of the actual process. Things will now start to happen.
Smack in the middle of this effort — and also at the very beginning of it — is Mark Richer, the president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the U.S. standards group that developed the DTV standard now used in North America, some parts of Central America and South Korea.
The idea for a world standard started at a dinner Richer had at CES in 2011 with Keiichi Kubota of NHK, the Japanese broadcasting authority that has been behind many of the major developments in TV technology over the past several decades, including HDTV. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world could get together on a standard? They agreed. After dinner, they got to work trying to make it happen.
Today, according to Myra Moore, a consultant who helps companies through the analog-to-digital broadcast transition, several digital broadcast standards now share the world stage: DVB-T is in use in most of Western Europe; DVB-T2, a second-gen system being deployed in Eastern Europe and Russia; ISDB-T rules in Japan; SBTVD, a variation of the Japanese standard prevails in Brazil and elsewhere in South America; and China has come up with its own standard.
Richer makes a compelling case for going beyond all these incompatible standards to single, next-generation world standard within the next two to five years. “We are cautiously optimistic because there is so much support for it,” he says.
A world standard would maximize the economies of scale, he says. Manufacturers of transmission equipment and receivers could build knowing they could market it in everywhere — from Washington to Berlin to Beijing. That means lower costs for broadcasters and, ultimately, consumers.
And given a world market, those manufacturers would be more likely to invest in R&D that generate the continual improvements in broadcast equipment — improvements that are critical if broadcasting is going to keep pace with other TV media like the Internet and broadband wireless, Richer says. “It gives us — the whole industry of terrestrial broadcasting — a lot more credibility.”
The other obvious benefit would be that as broadcast TV becomes an increasingly mobile medium, consumers would be able to take their mobile devices across international borders with confidence that they keep on working, he says. “When I go to Rome, I would like my tablet computer and my phone to be able to get television there over the air.”
The development of a world standard will also entail the development of a next-generation standard, far more capable than the standards in use anywhere today, according to Richer.
The next-gen standard would make more efficient use of spectrum, permitting the broadcast of 3D and ultra high definition TV — another bounding leap in closing the gap between the human eye and electronic imagery. (Stations still laboring to upgrade news studios to HD may not want to hear about UHD and 3D, but they’re coming.)
And the new standard would be significantly better at broadcasting — reaching fixed and mobile devices with good signals. According to Richer, backers of the world standard recognize the importance of mobile reception and there will be a “heavy focus” on it. “We want it to be mobile from the beginning.”
The FoBTV organization that will be coming into being at NAB is not another standards body. Rather, it will an umbrella group that will try to nudge the next-gen efforts around the world toward a common standard. “It’s not going to actually write the detailed standards. It’s going to pick the major technologies and recommend them to the major [standards] organizations,” says Richer.
If all goes well, the work of the various standards bodies will arrive at the same point.
ATSC already has a next-gen program underway, what it calls ATSC 3.0. “They will look at what we are doing and we might suggest technologies into FoBTV just like everybody else,” Richer says. “We hope it will be very collaborative and go back and forth among the organizations with contributions and communications.”
The work of ATSC and the FoBTV committee deserve the full support of the U.S. broadcasting industry, and I believe they will get. The NAB was a signatory of the Shanghai declaration, and it has stepped up its role in technology lately with the hiring of CTO Kevin Gage and by voting more money for research and development.
But the drive toward a world standard should not be allow to delay the development and adoption of a next-gen system in the U.S. And ATSC has to be careful not to compromise on its own standard for the sake of a world standard.
You would like to believe standards setting is pure science, but it’s not. Like so much else in the world, it is fraught with politics and money. A certain technology may be incorporated into standard, not because it is the right technology, but because of who owns the patents (and who get the royalties).
It seems to me that involving more countries and companies would only inject more politics and money into the process and slow everything down.
Richer believes the world can get to a common standard is two to five years. Let’s hope it’s two, keeping it mind that a new standard would take years more to implement.
The basic ATSC standard that broadcasters spent billions to install has been a disappointment. In too many places, you need a rooftop antenna to receive it.
Because of its inherent propagation problems, ATSC had to come up with a separate, ancillary standard for mobile. And even it is proving less rugged, and more difficult to receive than advertised. If broadcasters are going to be mobile players, they are going to have to do much better.
The industry just fought a big legislative battle in Washington to preserve the integrity of the TV band. It makes little sense to go forward much longer with a broadcast standard that was inadequate to begin with, and it already outdated.
When other TV media moves to 3D and ultra high def, broadcasting needs to be able to move with them — if not lead as it did with HD.
“At some point you have to start over with a clean slate to be able to really advance the technology,” Richer says. “The days of having a standard or a technology last 50 years are gone. That’s not going to happen again. It doesn’t happen in any industry. Just think of where the computer industry was 10 years ago or where the wireless carrier industry was 10 years ago.
“Things change and broadcasting has to change too.”
P.S. If you are headed for Las Vegas and NAB next month, you can learn more about the drive for a world standard at a general session featuring Richer and three other proponents: NHK’s Kubota; Leiven Vermaele, of the European Broadcasting Union; and Wenjun Zhang, National Engineering Research Center of DTV, China. It’s slated for Tuesday, April 17, in Room S222 of the Convention Center, 9:30-11:30 a.m.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].