Wouldn’t it be cool to sit in the stands of a football game watching the action live, but also listening to the TV commentary and glancing down at your iPad for the glorious high-def, close-up replays with no maddening 20 second, herky-jerky, buffering and no fear of using up your precious minutes on your expensive cell phone data plan — for free?
Or watching the local news for free on your tablet during your metro bus ride home to and from work?
Or sitting on the beach, soaking in the free baseball game along with the sun?
Or finally getting clear, pristine, robust and free over-the-air reception of your favorite shows like Nashville or Empire or The Big Bang Theory or the The Simpsons on your ultra HD, big screen, basement TV set?
“Absolutely, yes! How can I get that?!” That’s the typical response from TV viewers I speak with. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Sadly, you can’t do any of this today. That old Sony Watchman is part of the analog scrap heap. The current DTV broadcast standard was designed for “fixed” TV reception — and even that doesn’t work so well in the basement TV room. (The cable company conveniently removed your rooftop antenna years ago.)
Significantly, though, these benefits of free, robust, ultra HD and mobile service to daily consumers of plain old television depend on the adoption and launch of a next-generation broadcast transmission standard.
The work of hundreds of engineers coordinated by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) is rapidly moving toward a consensus standard with a target to be completed well in advance of the repack of the broadcast channel band required by the upcoming incentive auction.
When remaining broadcasters are squeezed together in the post-auction TV band, many will need new transmitters and antennas. That new equipment can be engineered to the new ATSC 3.0 standard, serving the harmonized chipsets installed in new fixed and portable devices. The consumer benefits are clear and clearly on the way.
But what’s in it for broadcasters themselves? Every industry — from food processing to auto manufacturing — upgrades its plants both to meet existing and new competitors and expand business opportunities. After 20 years of a DTV standard ill-suited to the changing habits and options for TV viewers, this upgrade can’t be more timely.
Broadcasters will finally be able to serve the enormous and growing population that watches programming on portable and mobile devices, bolstering its ad-supported business model. At the same time, it opens significant new revenue opportunities for the broadcasters who look to expanding businesses.
Attracting mobile viewers is an absolute imperative to the survival of the broadcast business model. Mobile video consumption will increase 16 times from current levels to account for a whopping two-thirds of all mobile data traffic by 2017. By 2019, more than half of mobile traffic will be video.
To give a sense of how fast that is growing, tablets alone will generate more traffic in 2017 than the entire global mobile network did in 2012. These are viewers who do not now have access to our platform. We need to get them back. And as for a demographic group, only 55% of millennials (highly sought after by our advertisers) use plain old TVs as their primary viewing platform. We absolutely must capture them as well, if we want our platform to survive and grow.
The next-gen standard not only empowers broadcasters to play in this mobile arena, but also helps solve the knotty, existential problem created by the incentive auction for low-power and translator stations relied on by so many broadcasters and audiences today.
In the zeal to free up spectrum capacity for cell phone use, the “expendable detritus” are the hundreds of LPTV/translators that will be stranded as completely “unprotected” in the new order. In other words, they’re gone. Their audiences will be left without programming, without public safety warnings and community notifications. Hyper-local programming options along with the ability to stretch station signals to remote parts of DMAs will be lost to those who need the local programming the most.
Fortunately, the next-gen standard offers a way out. Single Frequency Networks can use the features of the new standard to reuse the exact same main broadcast channel on multiple towers. Rather than “translate” the signal on a different channel, broadcasters can use their existing frequencies to provide this service. Just as the mobile carriers reuse channels, the LPTV stations can also optimize spectrum and provide needed services.
This addressable frequency reuse capability also enables stations to provide “zone” over-the-air broadcast programming and ads in the same way cable systems do today. The addressable capability of the next-gen standard allows bits to be uniquely coded as they enter the transmission stream. Unlike the single transport stream of today’s standard, next-gen allows for multiple carriers of different coded data. The codes can be targeted to specific relay transmitters in the Single Frequency Network chain that only retransmit the identified bits paired with that transmitter. The result: unique geographically defined programming.
How attractive would that option be in hyphenated markets or those markets straddling state lines? The ability to zone political ads in and of itself is a compelling business motivator. Different programming (hyper local) and different ads equal new marketing opportunities. If we wish to add value to our stations through capabilities such as targeted advertising (geographically, individually or otherwise), only a next-gen approach will get us there.
Apart from plain old television (the new “POTs”), the next-gen standard offers other options for broadcasters. Flexible use of the channel means provisioning non-broadcast services that are perfect candidates for our extraordinarily efficient one-to-many architecture. Even the government recognized this nascent possibility by including a way for it to skim 5% off the top of revenue from these new non-broadcast applications.
From optional automobile services (like real-time navigation system map/traffic updates) to distance learning to real estate to e-books distribution to localized weather alerts to health care notifications to critical public safety apps to digital outdoor signage supply, there are a myriad of services awaiting exploitation. Providing a transmission backbone to the explosion of the Internet of Things is reason enough for broadcasters to demand this new capability.
Because the current standard does not support mobile/portable reception or deep-building penetration, its use of data uses is severely limited. The next-gen standard overcomes these limits and permits new uses confined only by the imagination of broadcasters.
With support from the largest group broadcasters, adoption of the next-gen standard will permit expansion of the broadcast business model, while station owners fulfill, as they have always done, their public interest responsibilities integral to their licenses — and fulfill them in a way that no other TV medium can.
Moving to the next-gen standard in conjunction with the repack of the broadcast band must become part of our national policy. It makes absolutely no sense commercially or from a public policy perspective to make broadcasters change antennas, towers and transmitters twice when it can be easily done once. There is $1.75 billion set aside in the Incentive Auction to do just that.
So what’s in it for you? The viewer finally gets free, ultra-high-definition, deep-building, mobile (pedestrian and vehicular) and other new services. Broadcasters get access to a vital and growing audience — long denied to them, the ability to extend, target and zone their programming and ads, and gain access to a plethora of other service opportunities all while getting the government to defray the equipment transition costs.
What the heck is not to like about the next-gen standard? Let’s get this done — NOW!
Jerry Fritz is EVP of strategic and legal affairs for ONEMedia, one of several technology companies vying to have its next-gen transmission system adopted as the national standard by the Advanced Television Systems Committee. ONEMedia is a joint venture of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Coherent Logix. Fritz can be reached at [email protected]