TECH SPOTLIGHT

With CFP, Air Test, ATSC 3.0 Off And Running

AitkenRicherThis week was a busy one for proponents of broadcast television’s future. On Tuesday, the ATSC issued a call for proposals for a new standard, ATSC 3.0, and the next day, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s tech guru, Mark Aitken, turned on an experimental broadcast at WNUV Baltimore of a transmission system that could be part of TV’s next-generation standard. ATSC President Mark Richer anticipates receiving a dozen or more proposals by September and plans to brief potential proponents at NAB.

With 38 years of industry experience under his belt, Mark Aitken, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s VP of advanced technology, is determined to see the next-generation broadcast TV standard deployed within three years.

To that end, at 3:35 a.m. yesterday morning when most of the East Coast was sound asleep, he and his team of engineers flipped a switch at WNUV Baltimore and broadcast programming using the OFDM DVB-T2 signal rather than the conventional ATSC 8-VSB signal for about five hours.

“For decades I did field work, so even at this ripe, almost old age, I still feel good after working through the night,” Aitken says.

Aitken’s timing was auspicious. On Tuesday evening, just hours before WNUV’s experimental broadcast, the Advanced Television Standards Committee got the ball rolling on the next-generation standard — ATSC 3.0, issuing a call for proposals (CFP) for systems to be considered for the standard.

According to the CFP, ATSC will evaluate proposed transmission systems on how well they deliver programming to fixed devices, handheld devices, vehicular devices, portable devices and whether they can handle HD and UltraHD (4K and 8K), in real time and non-real time.

The new standard would not be compatible with the existing standard, which means that consumers would have to buy new receivers to get the signals off-air.

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The CFP is only for the physical layer — the transmission system. There are two other layers, management and protocols and application and presentation, that will come into play later.

Broadcasters, consumer electronics manufacturers and professional equipment manufacturers interested in submitting a proposal for ATSC 3.0 must respond by Aug. 23 and submit their official response by Sept. 27.

ATSC President Mark Richer anticipates receiving a dozen or more proposals come September and plans to brief potential proponents at next month’s NAB Show.

Sinclair’s hope to deploy a new standard in three years might be too aggressive, Richer says. He says the plan is to get final approval of a standard in the first half of 2017. “However, the schedule will be driven by industry goals, so it’s helpful to have companies such as Sinclair express their business requirements.”

The FCC issued an experimental license to Sinclair in February so that it could test DVB-T2, which is used in several European countries. Richer calls it a “very good system,” and one of the many that could succeed the current ATSC standard.

“My view is that Sinclair’s efforts to create a test platform that can be used to expand the industry’s understanding of next-generation technology is a good thing,” he says.

Sinclair’s Wednesday test was primarily aimed at simply making sure the system would work. Only one receiver was tuned into WNUV: Aitken’s Hauppauge USB dongle — a receiver that handles various global TV standards. Viewers in Baltimore couldn’t see anything on their sets during the test.

But Aitken says the first test went off without a hitch. “There were no glitches. It was an exciting feeling to see it work.”

Sinclair will test more technical aspects of the standard, such as peak average ratio reduction, in the coming weeks. “It’s correction technology that will help us find the cleanest, most efficient way to transmit,” Aitken says.

While DVB-T2 is a more robust standard than the current ATSC 1.0, Aitken says it is limited by the fact that it has to be compatible with other standards in the DVB family.

‘If you didn’t have that constraint from DVBT to T2 to future DVB standards — if you cut the loop completely — there are things you would do differently and provide better solutions,” he says.

“Not having that backwards compatibility is the absolute best situation. ATSC 3.0 has an opportunity to be that clean sheet — a greenfield, white board approach.”

Aitken wouldn’t say if Sinclair would propose DVB-T2 as the new standard for ATSC 3.0, but did say what he learns from the testing at WNUV should help propel the standards activity. If Sinclair is to submit a proposal for ATSC 3.0, Aitken says he wouldn’t want to “limit our ideas to just the activities going on at WNUV.”

Among other things, Sinclair plans to look at how OFDM — the technical foundation for every aspect of the wireless industry —can support 4K UltraHD within the existing 6 MHz channel assignments.

4K is a hot consumer topic and one that can’t be ignored, says Jim Kutzner, PBS VP of advanced technology and chair of the ATSC TG-3 group in charge of ATSC 3.0.

“How 4K will be distributed in the future is a big question, and we feel having that as an option for broadcasters is going to be important,” Kutzner says. “Having said that, the marketplace decides what it wants. Bigger bits and more pixels seem to be the first thing you think a consumer wants, but technology can always throw you some left turns. It’s important that we’re flexible in coming up with this new system.”

Youngkwon Lim, senior manager of Samsung Research America in Dallas, is leading the group on management and protocols for ATSC 3.0.

“My group is focused on how to deliver the content created in 3.0,” he says. “How can we provide the user with the best method of delivery possible?”

As one of the top TV manufacturers in the United States, Lim says Samsung certainly has an interest in the next-generation TV standard. “We want to contribute to make it better than current TV.”

That may include submitting a system for standardization, he says.  “We’re positively considering it so we can provide some of the best technology we have.”

Samsung competitor and longtime ATSC member LG Electronics, the developer of the current ATSC transmission standard, is also keenly interested. “We’re studying it very closely right now,” says LG spokesman John Taylor. “It’s a pretty exciting time for broadcasters.”

Rajan Mehta, CTO of Mobile Content Venture (better known as Dyle) and executive director of advanced technology at NBCUniversal, is leading work on the application side of ATSC 3.0. But he declined to comment through an NBC spokesperson.

Luke Fay, Sony Electronics senior staff software systems engineer, who is leading the group on the physical layer of 3.0, could not be reached for comment.

Fay will join Kutzner at NAB in presenting a technical paper called ATSC 3.0: The Next-Generation Broadcast System. It’s scheduled for April 7 at 10:30 a.m. in room S225 of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

From now until September, Richer says, work will continue on the other two layers of ATSC 3.0. It’s still undecided if a formal CFP for those two layers will be issued, he says. “There hasn’t been a decision, but there’s a possibility we won’t need to do that. The committees assess and make those decisions.”

For now, the ATSC president is happy to see the future of television formally kick off.

“This is a big milestone for ATSC and for the industry.”

Andrew Dodson is TVNewsCheck’s technology editor. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewDodson and on TVNewsCheck’s tech blog Playout. Contact him with news tips and story ideas at 303-800-4581 or [email protected]


Comments (4)

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Christina Perez says:

March 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Color TV caught on because wisemen decreed that it must be backwardly compatible with black and white. It’s only been a few years since the government spent a couple billion dollars on the initial DTV conversion and subsidies for set- top converters. And now industry tekkies are talking about the planned obsolescence of all that hardware, and all of those fairly new HDTVs? Many viewers with cable still rely on OTA for second sets, or to receive channels that aren’t must-carry. This is a socioPOLITICAL decision as much as it is a technical decision. You can’t tell me that the wizards of 21st century broadcasting can’t come up with a technically acceptable backwardly compatible standard — and once word gets out, prepare for an outcry from the viewing public, and from the politicians who listen to them. And I’ll be one of their cheerleaders. Please rethink the backward compatibility issue, and get someone in there who understands the POLITICS of “ATSC 3.0”. A final note: Even 720p OTA delivers an excellent picture. This issue should hinge more on signal robustness than on picture quality, because we’re already near the optimum of what the human eye can discern.

Ellen Samrock says:

March 28, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Congrats to Mark Aiken, Samsung and the others for getting the FCC to, first of all, approve it and then getting it off the ground. Let’s hope the Commission will give broadcasters the necessary three years to roll ATSC 3.0 out.

Bobbi Proctor says:

April 1, 2013 at 4:18 pm

PhillyPhlash is right. As viewers who use an antenna for television (other than DVD and BluRay) we have invested too much money in sets to have to start over again. We have 5 HD sets (two are older tube sets but work fine), two small DTV sets and one battery powered 7″ set for emergency use. We are very pleased with the picture quality on our bigger HDTV sets. It is much better than cable. A neighbor who is a cable subscriber put up an antenna when he saw the quality signal via our antenna. They watch network and local shows in HD using the antenna and have discovered several stations that are not on cable. I don’t think they will want to replace their sets either.

Andrea Rader says:

April 3, 2013 at 8:05 pm

ATSC 1.0 was essentially obsolete by the time it finally launched. Repacking and the breakneck pace of technological development have forced the hand of broadcasters and regulators and a new, incompatible digital broadcast standard is inevitable. The vast majority of viewers are already watching via cable or satellite and will be unaffected, and a whole new generation of exciting devices will be developed to take full advantage of the new standard. A cost-effective adapter can and will be developed for existing sets; there’s no reason why a program like the government subsidies for CECBs can’t be developed to ease the transition for OTA viewers.


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