Interview: ATSC-3 is the Upcoming Standard for Broadcasting

Broadcasters will be seeing a number of technology upgrades as they move from the ATSC-1 standard to ATSC-3, bringing new things like broadband and broadcast joint channels, HDR and 8K broadcast capabilities, and setting up the future of cable television. While we covered a brief summary in an earlier article, I wanted to give readers a greater sense of how this would impact their viewing experience in the coming years. I got a chance to interview one of the leads, Rich Chernock, and asked him questions I had along with some from our readers.

How did you first get involved with working on the ATSC-3 standard?

Evolution. I have been involved in ATSC standards work for a long time – starting with data broadcast in the original ATSC 1.0 system. Over time, I became the chairman of what is now ATSC TG1 (the group working on today’s DTV standards). I then moved on to chairing the work on the next generation system – ATSC 3.0 (via the TG3 committee). One of the best ways of keeping up with new technologies is to lead the groups that are inventing them. Besides chairing the overall activity, I also chair an adhoc group that has defined the transport layer for the system (I like working with the bits & bytes).

Will ATSC-3 improve upon ATSC-1 in terms of bandwidth usage or EPG data?

ATSC 3.0 utilizes the most recent codecs for video and audio compression (HEVC (H.265) for video and Dolby AC-4 or MPEG-H for audio), which use significantly less bandwidth for comparable quality compression (approximately 4x less for video). Combining this with the potential for higher bandwidth in the physical layer, the content delivery capacity for ATSC 3.0 is quite a bit larger than today’s DTV system – with potentially up to 8x the capacity (for certain system choices). This increase in efficiency allows for more complex and higher quality content to be carried (4K video, better HD (with High Dynamic Range (HDR), Wide Color Gamut (WCG) and increased frame rate as well as 3D immersive audio).

EPGs can be more comprehensive, with the ability to carry icons, preview images and preview clips associated with the events on the schedule.

How will ATSC-3 affect cable providers and how they currently transmit content?

Along with broadcasters, MVPDs (Cable and Satellite providers) are evolving their technology. It is possible (probable?) that they will end up using similar technologies as broadcasters (for many reasons, this is desirable) and there is considerable liaison between the standards development organizations to facilitate this. However, at the current time, MVPDs are not utilizing the components of the ATSC 3.0 system. This may not be much of an issue, however. Broadcasters will be still sending out ATSC 1.0 signals during an extended transition period, so these may be fed to the MVPDs directly (essentially business as usual). There is likely to be a need for conversion of ATSC 3.0 for MVPD use in some situations – we have a specialists group (S37) focused on conversion from ATSC 3.0 to ATSC 1.0 specifically for this purpose. There is widespread participation in this group, including people from broadcasting, cable, satellite and equipment manufacturers. As there are quite extensive relationships between broadcasters & MVPDs, I don’t foresee that this will be a problem area.

Networks will be able to seamlessly mix broadcast and broadband together to provide more data. Do you think we’ll see channels that are entirely streamable from the web?

One of the premises of the work in ATSC 3.0 is that broadcast must be involved in some fashion. Technologies for purely web streamable services (OTT in other words) are already available and in use, so there’s no need for additional standards in this area. Hybrid services (seamlessly combining components delivered over both broadcast and broadband) are a large part of the design of the ATSC 3.0 system.

Part of the standard is to allow more devices to receive broadcasts. Do you expect to see mobile devices in the US supporting TV broadcasts in the coming years?

The simple answer is “Yes”. Mobility is one of the major requirements for the ATSC 3.0 system and very desirable for many broadcasters. A borrowed quote comes to mind: “Broadcast television has been wireless since before wireless was cool.” Quite a bit of attention was paid in the design of the physical layer (RF modulation) to ensure that sufficient robustness was available in the system to allow mobile reception (both fast mobile (vehicular) and slow (pedestrian)). With the ATSC 3.0 system, broadcasters can partition their 6 MHz channels into different physical layer pipes with different levels of robustness and thereby target both mobile & fixed receivers in the same broadcast channel.

Another growing area is smart TVs and streaming boxes. Have smart TVs been an area of focus while working on this standard?

The work on ATSC 3.0 has always targeted a range of receiving devices from large screens on the wall to small portable receivers and smart TVs to the simplest “dumb” TVs. Services can be constructed that will provide a good experience on simple devices – and “better” experiences on smart devices. Watching television will work on all. Interactivity would work those devices capable of supporting it. Broadcasters have always been interested in reaching all the viewers possible and this will continue to be a goal.

Will OTA content continue to be free to receive, or do you foresee businesses adding paywalls before the stream is accessible?

The FCC currently requires that at least one program/service/virtual channel be freely available for each broadcast RF channel – this is very likely to continue to be the case. With today’s system, broadcasters do have the option of applying conditional access (i.e. encryption with associated charges) to any other services they offer – few have done so. It is up to the broadcaster to decide which business models to follow – now and in the future. The current business model that most use – free to air, with commercials – along with the existing business relationships with for redistribution onto cable and satellite – will likely continue in my opinion. I do expect that there will be some experimentation of possible new types of services (one possibility might be charging for enhancements to services – one example might be dashboard cam views during NASCAR).

From a regulatory point of view, how do you see the standard rolling out in the US?

The FCC must first approve transmission of ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. Responding to a petition, the FCC has issued an NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking), which is one of the steps towards changing the regulation. Chairman Pai has publicly come out very positive on the topic of ATSC 3.0. The expectation is that this process will conclude later this year.

There are some people who receive TV broadcasts but don’t have Internet service and vice-versa. Will consumers be expected to have both in order to play brodcasts?

The design for ATSC 3.0 has always included the situation where broadcast reception only was available to the receiver. Clearly, the broadband delivered components would not be available in this case. Broadcasters will keep this in mind when creating new services for ATSC 3.0. As I mentioned earlier, services can be created that offer basic capabilities to unconnected receivers and enhancements to connected to receivers. Signaling metadata will tell the receiver what capabilities are needed for these services.

Can you provide an estimated timeline for when this will actually reach consumers?

There are a lot of moving parts here. One key element is FCC approval to allow ATSC 3.0 broadcasts – which is likely to happen later this year. Broadcasters and CE manufacturers have shown considerable interest in deploying ATSC 3.0 broadcasts and receivers. My personal guesstimate is that in the US, we’ll be seeing trials this year (there are a number of stations currently with ATSC 3.0 on the air on an experimental basis) and wider deployment starting next year (of course the repack after the auction is likely to have an impact on this timeline). The most likely scenario for a transition is referred to as a lighthouse approach. There will be a need to have both ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 on the air at the same time during a transition. For a simple example, two broadcasters in a given location will cooperate – on one of the transmit towers, they will channel share with ATSC 1.0 versions of each of their transmissions – on the other, channel share with ATSC 3.0 versions. When there is sufficient penetration of ATSC 3.0 receiving devices in the area, it would be possible to shut down the ATSC 1.0 transmission, with each providing full ATSC 3.0 services from their own towers.

In South Korea, the government has given the broadcasters additional spectrum for ATSC 3.0 broadcasts which will start later this year. The goal there is to have 4K broadcasts using ATSC 3.0 for the Olympics in 2018.

Conclusion

I’d like to thank Mr. Chernock for spending his time explaining to me and other consumers his vision for the future of television. As Android TV development continues, it will likely adopt more of these features and use its modern interface and processing power to provide a stellar viewing experience. Android TV already supports USB tuners, although new models and USB tuners will offer even greater capabilities with this new standard.

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Nick Felker

Nick Felker

Nick Felker is a student Electrical & Computer Engineering student at Rowan University (C/O 2017) and the student IEEE webmaster. When he's not studying, he is a software developer for the web and Android (Felker Tech). He has several open source projects on GitHub (http://github.com/fleker) Devices: Moto G-2013 Moto G-2015, Moto 360, Google ADT-1, Nexus 7-2013 (x2), Lenovo Laptop, Custom Desktop. Although he was an intern at Google, the content of this blog is entirely independent and his own thoughts.

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