ATSC 3.0 Moves Closer to Reality

The final day of SMPTE’s Annual Technology Conference and Exhibition offered a look at the important next steps in the transition of over-the-air broadcasting to IP via ATSC 3.0. The next-generation standard will allow broadcasters not only to deliver a range of new services but also to leave behind an antiquated transmission mechanism that is cumbersome and difficult to improve.

Mark Aitken, VP, advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group, pointed out that IP capabilities coupled with broadcasting’s capabilities make over-the-air broadcasting important in serving the growing need for content across different platforms.

“The television-transport-stream approach isolated it from the rest of the world,” he explained. “What we have done is take the single highest hurdle that had to be crossed and eliminate that so that the bits that flow across the broadcast spectrum flow across all IP-based devices.”

ATSC3.0The goal is to ensure that over-the-air broadcasters are in a better position to take advantage of not only traditional TV form factors (like newly developed UHD sets) but also the ever increasing handheld devices and even wearables.

The four key features of ATSC 3.0 are spectrum efficiency, new capabilities for content and services, new monetization opportunities (dynamic ad insertion and personalization), and a flexible standard that can be improved without having to be completely revised. Broadcasters can choose 4K, HD, mobile, or any combination within a single channel and also adjust the parameters so that a given service could be as robust as desired.

For example, from a transmission standpoint, ATSC 1.0 has one bitrate (19.39 Mbps) and one coverage area served by an MPEG-2 signal. ATSC 3.0 will move to an IP-based architecture so that broadcasting becomes part of the wireless-Internet world.

Aitken said that, once in an “IP frame of mind,” broadcasters will have new business opportunities, including the ability to deliver UHD and HDR services.

“[Delivering] better pictures to the hands of consumers more efficiently and with a higher quality level can differentiate us from things like streaming services,” he explained. “And the increased viewership that comes out of that, in turn, leads to increased ad revenues.”

Even those who are not looking to broadcast UHD will see massive benefits. Up to six 1080p signals with higher dynamic range and higher frame rate can be delivered (or up to eight 720p or 12 1080i signals). Those services can also be mixed and matched with 360p services for mobile devices and much more.

“You can mix and match resolutions,” added Aitken, “and flexibility is an important part of ATSC 3.0.”

In addition, ATSC 3.0 provides for high dynamic range and UHD, allowing broadcasters to have a compelling marketing advantage over other delivery methods.

Skip Pizzi, senior director, new media technologies, NAB, gave an overview of the current status of ATSC 3.0 parent standard, which comprises 19 separate standards that allow for greater flexibility going forward, making it more akin to the Internet than the current ATSC 1.0 standard.

“Just last week in Shanghai,” he reported, “not more than six weeks after publication of some of the standards, the ATSC held its first Plugfest, and, in fact, folks are jumping right in.” Half of the 19 standards are expected to be candidate standards by the end of the first half of next year, with the rest becoming candidate standards by the end of the year.

“The timeline has been going on for a while,” he continued, “with planning starting five years ago. Then, we spent a good long time developing the requirements to make it as comprehensive as we could. From that developed about 150 specific requirements that have guided the development of the standards process. And we hope to see product development and testing in 2016.”

And then there is the concept of a “home gateway” that allows for features like pause/fast forward/rewind and management of stored content on a DVR that includes the ATSC 3.0 receiver.

Currently, the suite of ATSC 3.0 standards is expected to be in final approval next year with standardization in 2017. Ideally, the standard would be finalized in time for the repacking of TV stations that begins next year.

At the application level, HEVC has been selected as the video codec, but the addition of other codecs is also under consideration. And on the audio side, proposals by Dolby and MPEG-H Audio are also under consideration, and it is possible that both could be part of the final standard to provide maximum flexibility for the industry.

Also, a lot of work is being done on the “runtime environment” to allow for things like personalized advertising (either demographic via viewer opt-in or geographical), other personalized graphics, and other services. But Pizzi says those aspects of the standard are the most ambitious and will also most likely be the final piece to fall into place.

The transition from ATSC 1.0 is a big issue. According to Pizzi, it will not be possible to simulcast within one channel. One option would be to have stations share channels so that one handles the ATSC 1.0 service and another the ATSC 3.0 service. Another option is to “seed” receivers so that set-top boxes and tuners have both ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 capabilities. One good bit of news is that the standard provides enough bandwidth to do not only an HD service but also two SD services and even a UHD service (if the latter can fit within 16 or 17 Mbps of bandwidth).

“This is not just about replication of coverage but increasing services and providing a quality service that has new opportunities,” Aitken pointed out. “It’s about leveraging all the possibilities, and we will have a demonstration of those at CES both on the floor and in private suites.”

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