So Soon? Next-Gen Broadcast TV In Works

When it meets in Washington in two weeks, the Advanced Television Systems Committee board is expected to move forward with plans to develop a new standard for TV broadcasting in the next five to 10 years. It will enable TV stations to broadcast more programming, more reliably to more places and explore new business opportunities. For viewers, it may mean another traumatic transition similar to one leading up to the final June 2009 switch from analog to digital.

It’s been less than two years since TV broadcasting switched off the last analog transmitter and went all digital. But the actual digital broadcast standard — ATSC DTV — is actually a lot older than that.

In fact, it’s 15 years old if you start counting from when the FCC adopted it, 16 if you start counting from when the consortium of technology companies — the so-called Grand Alliance — put the system together and a few years older still if you go back to when the various components of the system were actually invented.

That’s a long, long time ago given the lighting speed with which electronic media evolves these days. And that’s why far-sighted broadcasters and technologists, under the aegis of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, have begun work on the next-generation TV broadcasting standard.

Even as some viewers still fiddle with DTV converter boxes, next-gen proponents say a new system is needed within the next several years so that TV stations can broadcast more programming, more reliably to more places and explore new business opportunities.

“At some point, broadcasting, like everything else, has to move to the next stage of technology,” says Mark Richer, president of the ATSC, whose board is expected to take the next step toward a next-gen standard when it meets in Washington in two weeks.

Jim Kutzner, chief engineer, Public Broadcasting Service, and chairman of ATSC’s next-gen planning committee, agrees that it’s time. “If you don’t start now, many years down the road you’ll be in the same place.”


Kutzner also sees the effort as a hedge against the FCC’s proposal to take big swatches of spectrum from broadcasters and make it available to wireless broadband providers. The FCC is pushing the plan, despite stiffening opposition of broadcasters.

“If the broadcasters are consolidated down into a smaller amount of spectrum, then we will have far less spectrum to transition from where we are today to where we want to be in the future,” he says.

To be determined is the urgency. While some proponents would like to put it on the fast track and bring the standard home within five years, others are looking at five to 10 years.

Whenever it comes, next-gen TV will not be backward compatible with DTV as color TV was with the original black-and-white TV in the 1950s. This will mean another traumatic transition similar to one leading up to the final June 2009 switch from analog to digital.

“Sometimes to build a better mousetrap, you have to start over,” said Richer. “That’s what we are going to do.”

The standards-setting work is still in its early stages, but already there seems to be a consensus that the third iteration of broadcasting — the first was 1941-vintage NTSC — should be far more efficient in its use of spectrum than today’s DTV system. Proponents talk of achieving it in a couple of different ways.

First, the standard would feature improved compression of video, audio and other content. “Broadcasters could use far fewer bits to deliver the same program at the same quality or deliver higher quality using the same bits we use today,” PBS’s Kutzner says.

And, second, it would allow stations to pump more bits through any given bandwidth. How many more Kutzner couldn’t say, but certainly, he says, “a substantial improvement” over the 19.4 mbps in 6 MHz now possible with DTV. “There are new techniques that approach Shannon’s Law, the theoretical limit of the ability to push bits through a channel,” he says.

The standards setters would also look for a marked improvement in the transmitted signal so it could be received on small indoor antennas and on mobile devices.

The current DTV transmission system — VSB — has been criticized for its poor propagation, especially in the VHF band. To receive it reliably, rooftop antennas are needed in most places.

And for mobile service, ATSC had to come up with a supplementary standard that forces stations to use up precious bandwidth to transmit a second signal that is suitable for viewing only on small screens.

“The ATSC is not tasked with figuring out how can we deliver broadcasting to a wider area, but they are thinking about, within the area that stations serve, how can we up the reliability in more diverse receiving configuration like indoor reception,” says Lynn Claudy, SVP, science and technology, National Association of Broadcasters, which is taking an active role in the next-gen push.

One option already under consideration for the standard is a multi-carrier OFDM modulation scheme that was considered, but finally rejected, for DTV in the 1990s, and which is widely used in other parts of the world.

ATSC may be feeling a little competitive heat to get going on a next-gen standard. NHK in Japan is developing a system, Richer says. And in Europe, some broadcasters are already on the air with a second-generation standard called DVB-T2.

“It’s indicative that all the countries throughout the world that adopted a mid-1990 technology for digital transmission are looking at new systems that do better and transition scenarios that allow them to migrate either quickly or over the long term to that new system,” says NAB’s Claudy.

Some believe that DVB-T2, based on multi-carrier OFDM modulation scheme, would be a quick next-gen solution for the U.S.

Claudy is not endorsing any system at this point, but says that DVB-T2 could be a smart play if it becomes popular in Europe. “You would already have economies of scale and manufacturing capabilities built up and that might lead to an easier transition scenario than starting from scratch in the U.S.,” he says.

“On the other hand, we are such a big market that you don’t really need the economies of scale from global manufacturing to have a cost-reduced and ubiquitous mass market.”

Some next-gen proponents would also like to see more flexibility built into the standard so that broadcasters would not be confined to 6 MHz all of the time and so that they could “broadcast” content for wireless mobile providers.

Among the drivers of the next-gen standard on the broadcasting side is Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group. He wants the new standard within five years, arguing that the current standard is no longer up to the job.

“It’s no secret [the DTV standard] has never been what it was cracked up to be,” he says. “We need more bit capacity, we need more reliable service and we need the ability to seamlessly stitch together markets with a quality service that would support virtually any business model.”

Aitken’s big idea, shared at an ATSC planning committee symposia, is to adopt an OFDM system that would complement the new 3GPP LTE standard that the wireless mobile operators intend to use to “multicast” linear video in a broadcast-like one-to-many service.

With compatible or “converged” systems, broadcasters and wireless carriers could work together, Aitken says. Broadcasters could deliver their own local programming services and emergency alerts to phones and step in to deliver multicast video for the carriers whenever demand threatens to overwhelm their networks.

“You could imagine a 4G telephone that could tune to a specific UHF frequency and receive LTE content being emitted by a broadcaster,” he says.

Aitken also believes that the move to the next-gen standard should be accompanied by a move to distributed networks of many transmitters that would provide better coverage of a market than the single transmitter with tall tower now employed in broadcasting.

“The ATSC should give serious consideration to new broadband-broadcast system architectures and not focus only on the component technologies…,” he says in his ATSC paper, which was co-authored by Mike Simon, of Rohde & Schwarz.

Aitken’s proposal dovetails with that of Capitol Broadcasting, a station group whose flagship is WRAL Raleigh, N.C. In an FCC filing, Capital has proposed adopting a next-generation OFDM system that would allow stations to handle the video multicasts of the wireless carriers for a fee.

“The idea is that if they get real high demand for certain video, then they switch it from wireless Internet to broadcast,” says CEO Jim Goodmon. “Broadcast takes a good bit of the video load off the wireless broadband system. What this means is, you have all these devices — cell phones. They’ve also got wireless Internet, and they also have a broadcast chip.”

ATSC’s next-gen initiative is already a year old. It began last May with the formation of Kutzner’s planning committee and over the past year it has held two day-long symposia during which broadcasters and technology companies presented papers on what the next-gen system should be and could be.

The planning committee is scheduled to report its findings and recommendations on May 12 to the ATSC board, which is expected to endorse them and pass them along for further discussion during strategy sessions this summer.

Out of those sessions should come a vote in July or September to assign next-gen to a technology group, which will begin the formal standards-setting work.

The group’s first order of business will be to define precisely what the requirements and the attributes of the new system should be and set a time frame for the work, Richer says. “Before you specify any technology, you need to know what you are trying to do,” he says.

Richer stresses that the work on next-gen broadcasting will not slow parallel work on standards to improve and enhance today’s DTV system. “That’s where we are focused and that’s where will we stay focused for the coming few years.”

To date, the most concrete manifestation of that commitment has been the mobile DTV standard, which broadcasters are still hoping to bring to market this year.

Other DTV efforts involved developing standards for broadcasting 3D and non-real-time programming.

Although some next-gen proponents have definite ideas, Richer cautions against trying to divine what the new standard will look like at this early stage. “There will be people coming out of the woodwork with technologies,” he says. “There will be things we know and things we have never heard about. The way we are going to approach it will be with open arms and trying to get as many organizations involved as possible.”

Comments (21)

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William Cummings says:

April 27, 2011 at 10:00 am

Genachowsky and the wireless industry will never let this get out of the gate. ATSC is wasting their time and effort. We’re witnessing the end of OTA broadcast right now. In ten years it will be acient history.

T Kuhn says:

April 27, 2011 at 10:01 am

Hey Harry! This is great news! You know that WatchTV, Inc. in Portland, OR has been trying to get an experimental license through the FCC to test many of the technologies you discussed in your article. A test of the capabilities and advantages of OFDM based broadcast standards like CMMB, ISDB-Tb, DVB-T2, etc., would provide helpful insight to the ATSC in their deliberative process concerning next-gen broadcast TV. I guess all that is necessary is to get the FCC to agree. Unfortunately, they seem more interested in driving broadcasters out of business, as opposed to helping them to succeed and thrive in the future. Hopefully the ATSC can get something going sooner that later . . . The technology clock is ticking very quickly and broadcasters need every advantage they can get to remain viable and competitive now and in the future.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    April 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    this much more serious than an LPTV station searching alone for a new technical model.

Meagan Zickuhr says:

April 27, 2011 at 10:14 am

Yea…. you are correct Oracle! However, for some reason, old Harry Boy chooses NOT TO COVER ANY OF THE LOW POWER TV ISSUES in his publication. Log on to or for more info on what the LPTV Industry can and is trying to do to help!

    Linda Stewart says:

    April 27, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Harry is not so old, and PJ did a column on LP just this week.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    April 27, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    older (and wiser) than she, I suspect.

William Winborne says:

April 27, 2011 at 10:19 am

Not interested in going through yet another TV transition. If this happens, I’ll just give up on TV and get my content through the internet.

Gregg Palermo says:

April 27, 2011 at 10:22 am

Remain viable? That boat sailed long ago. The NAB concocted HDTV in the early 1990s as a way to protect their unused spectrum, though they never imagined that digital compression would actually may it feasible to work (thank you, Woo Paik). Anyway, it looks like the old playbook is being used again: “Don’t take away the spectrum we’re wasting because we intend to use it in 5 years, honest!”

    mike tomasino says:

    April 27, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Rustbelt, your the one who is behind the times. Yeah, let’s let AT&T and Verizon waste broadcast spectrum… That sounds like a great idea. That is what they are planning on doing with it. They are wasting what they have now, so why shouldn’t we give them more to waste. All they have to do is fail to put enough antennas on their towers, and refuse to build more POTS, and suddenly they have a “spectrum crisis.” Meanwhile, OTA antennas are flying off the shelves and broadcasters are adding more channels and services, which is going to lead to more people dropping pay-TV for OTA. But, we can’t have that… OTA isn’t going to die on its own, so we need to kill it with a made up “spectrum crisis.”

    Kathryn Miller says:

    April 27, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    the NAB actually started on HDTV around 1985. Digital HDTV was in the 1990s. Rants are one thing. Starting off with the wrong facts could be another reason you’re an alumni.

mike tomasino says:

April 27, 2011 at 11:41 am

Also, broadcasters/ATSC… get it right this time. If we have to go through another transition, come up with something that will still be a good system in 50-100 years. There are going to be a lot more OTA viewers in 5 -10 years, so expect that there is going to be more transition/converter box cost for consumers than there was last time.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    April 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Nobody’s an Oracle, even people using that as a nickname

Ellen Samrock says:

April 27, 2011 at 11:46 am

In a way this ties in with the FCC objectives of broadcasters doing more with less (spectrum) and making VHF usable again. So it’s possible that the Commission will smile favorably on the ATSC’s efforts to change from 8-VSB to OFDM. Whether the public, having just purchased new HDTVs, will follow suit is another question. A change in transmission standard could very well spell the end of broadcast TV–the current trend of cord-cutting notwithstanding. And of course, many of us are still paying for exciters, encoders and other equipment that could be rendered obsolete should a new standard be finalized. But such is progress.

Dave Chumley says:

April 27, 2011 at 12:32 pm

To survive and grow, OTA DTV needs to provide robust wide-area service for hand-held and mobile devices and there is no way to do that with ATSC SFN, regardless if the ATSC standard is 8VSB or M/H. If you are technically oriented go to and read
“Why are the ATSC-8VSB and M/H Standards Fundamentally Unsuitable for Next Generation Television Broadcasting and How to Painlessly Transit to ATSC/OFDM Network”

    Kathryn Miller says:

    April 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Which simply raises the question why you didn’t submit the paper to the ATSC NGBT (PT-2) group when asked twice over the last 8 months. Do you or Mr. Bendow prefer diatribes over submitting your ideas to due process organizations of engineers? Note that Mr. Aitken and Mike Simon of R+S did such a submission, as did many others. My guess: chicken.

Jason Crundwell says:

April 27, 2011 at 12:36 pm

OK, no more damned TV system changes. We amde it through the last unfunded mandate from the unelected idiots at the FCC; we’ll not do it again. There is simply no need to overhaul (again) the entire TV infrastructure and certainly no money to do so! Nor is there any incentive. So just stop. Now. And by the way, 3D is dead. There, I said it.

kathleen renck says:

April 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Yea, transitioning from MPEG2 to MPEG4 would be a welcome addition to Over-The-Air TV. Now, multiple streams are causing objectionable macroblocking. But did everyone forget the NTSC-ATSC conversion? It was like birthing a baby. If the original standards had called for a way to update the codecs, this would be easy but now, it’s not. Running a TV station isn’t a license to print money, like it was in the good old days. A couple million for the next digital transition just isn’t in the budget.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    April 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    hindsight is always so clear. Just how would a standard built upon MPEG-2 contemplate and support a standard where the MPEG-4 work had yet to begin? Doing as you desired could have actually held back MPEG-4 as “downloadable codecs” were contemplated. ATSC M/H can be adopted for an investment of less than 200K, and if NGBT is made mandatory, the FCC would be doing that.

tom denman says:

April 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Original estimates of 20% or greater of TV viewers did not make the transition in 2009. With the additional and increasing competition for eyes and ears, why would broadcasters be interested in losing potentially more of an audience in the interest of whatever new technologies may or may not be on the horizon? But to government officials.. “Gee this went so well before, why don’t we have another transition until nothing is left?”

Ben Gao says:

April 28, 2011 at 1:38 pm

LEAVE HD-1 alone. If you want to screw with the ‘extras’ and add a mobile ‘HD-3″ – fine, but don’t screw with the over the air HD-1. People just spent a lot of money, and will not and cannot spend that money again. LEAVE it ALONE. Tell the FCC what they can do with themselves and the spectrum grab. LEAVE TV ALONE. AMEN.

Mitch keegan says:

May 3, 2011 at 10:45 am

Why do they have to develop a new system? Why don’t they just adopt the system that every other country uses throughout the world? The FCC doesn’t want OTA TV to exist. Evidence of this was the cancelled experimental license of the TV station that wanted to experiment with OFDM. November 2011 will be here before you know it and it might be time for “change”.

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