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ATSC 3.0: NextGen TV Has Finally Arrived

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The premise of the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard is that it brings viewers the interactive features streaming has always offered, plus a number of new and improved features, via a one-to-many over-the-air (OTA) delivery. Because this is Streaming Media magazine, I'll focus on the features that are of particular interest to streaming professionals.

Over the Air Meets Over the Top

Many consumers are now accustomed to the convenience and features of smart TVs. As ATSC president Madeleine Noland says, "You do not need an internet connection to watch TV. However, there's so much cool stuff that you can do if your TV is connected to the internet." Because ATSC 3.0 offers IP delivery over the air, it brings a slew of features that are already available in smart TVs and some that aren't:

  • Support for off-the-shelf web browser technology
  • Full HD
  • Voice boost to increase the volume of the dialogue relative to the music and effects
  • Support for HEVC and Dolby audio
  • Emergency notifications
  • Closed-captioning
  • The ability to change audio and captions to alternative supplied languages
  • OTT and OTT hybrid content broadcasting
  • Additional interactive functionality
  • DVR
  • Datacasting
  • Ad-targeting
  • Dynamic content substitution
  • Ecommerce support

In demos I've seen, channel surfing between OTA and OTT is seamless, and there's no obvious indication to the viewer of how the content is being delivered. The ATSC 3.0 magic happens when you're watching your favorite team, news channel, TV show, or movie and have access to supplemental content served via OTT. Think clickable video (based on date and time), menus, or on-screen buttons (all courtesy of an HTML5 overlay) over the broadcast video. This supplemental content can be displayed in an entirely new video or perhaps a split screen, a lower third, picture-in-picture, or some other yet-to-be-designed user interface. The interactive environment defined by ATSC 3.0 is based on web browser technology, HTML5, Java, JavaScript, JSON, and WebSocket APIs for TV functionality (captioning, emergency messages, TV remote controls). I'll discuss app development later on.

ATSC 3.0 Standards

The ATSC 3.0 standard includes dozens of specs. (Image courtesy of ATSC)

NextGen TV

To get ATSC 3.0 content, you'll need a new NextGen TV that has an ATSC 3.0 tuner. Spearheading adoption is Pearl TV, a business organization of nine of the largest U.S. broadcast station groups representing more than 800 stations and 85% of U.S. households, with partnerships in place with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and Univision.

"We've been developing and working on platforms and technologies, looking at how consumers are consuming our local news, information, and network content that we distribute. We recognized 10 years ago that consumers were shifting behavior," says Anne Schelle, Pearl TV's managing director. Connected TV didn't exist 7 years ago, and now it's more than 93% of the market. "Over-the-air live linear broadcast still dominates, but we know viewers have choices," notes Schelle.

In the U.S., 46 cities and 184 markets have transitioned to the new standard. Each market must play a bit of musical chairs to take all broadcasters in an area and share spectrum to leave one tower on ATSC 1.0 (so they are still able to service older TVs), while the remaining towers can move to ATSC 3.0. Today's coverage can be found at go2sm.com/atscdeployments.

One big benefit of ATSC 3.0 is that local TV can use interactive features that many viewers have gotten used to from streaming. It can also target consumers the same way streaming services have: by geography, interest, viewing analytics, and all of the data available from digital stream distribution. This will help provide more access to those who have limited internet access or data caps on cell service or who simply can't afford premium OTT services.

"Broadband is expensive. There's very little, and there's no competition at all in a lot of small to mid-sized U.S. markets. This is where I think 3.0 becomes a really interesting tool as a way to deliver a bundle to homes in these communities," says Todd Achilles, co-founder, president, and CEO of Evoca, a NextGen TV service provider based in Boise, Idaho. "[ATSC 3.0] gives you the reach of broadcast. We cover 80, 85% of the homes in our markets with the ability now to monetize with paid TV economics, which you could never do before."

The current state of ATSC 3.0 deployments (Image courtesy ATSC)

The current state of ATSC 3.0 deployments (Image courtesy ATSC)

The ATSC 3.0 Workflow

"ATSC 3.0 is designed to be a next generation of digital television broadcasts for terrestrial broadcasting," says media consultant Skip Pizzi. The transport layer has been switched to be an IP-based system and is a complete greenfield approach for radio frequency (RF) delivery, with no backward compatibility to ATSC 1.0. "So it's got to be a whole lot better to make it worth that kind of forklift transition both for broadcasters and for consumers. It was designed from the ground up to literally be an end-to-end kind of improvement of everything that could possibly be done with a television," notes Pizzi.

Probably the biggest benefit is that the broadcast channel can carry a lot more digital content in the same amount of spectrum. ATSC 3.0 is also designed to work internationally to map to channel sizes, whether it's the 6 MHz used in the U.S. or the 7 MHz or 8 MHz used in other countries.

"Being able to do true HD, but also ultra 4K HDR and maybe potentially even 8K, is a big change," Pizzi says. The audio upgrades are also significant, including Dolby Atmos, dialogue enhancement to make spoken words easier to understand, and having captions as a separate file as opposed to being burned into video. "For the first time, the broadcast side, the RF side, is IP. It's a transmitted-over-the-air IP stream, just like the IP streams that are online," Pizzi states.

Spectrum Number Crunching

ATSC 3.0 uses the highly efficient HEVC H.265 for video coding (with optional HDR, wide color gamut, and high frame rates), and either AC-4 or MPEG-H for audio, all delivered over ROUTE/DASH or MMT transport. "You can send out a full HD signal for under five megabits per second. The HD signaling is on 20% of the bandwidth. That leaves another 80% of the bandwidth for other stuff," says Dave Folsom, CTO of Pearl TV. "We have 6 MHz worth of channeled bandwidth, which translates in ATSC 3.0 to anything between 20 and 55 megabits per second throughput. The reason there's a difference is that we have the ability to control how robust the signal is, which controls our coverage area. The more coverage we want, the less bandwidth we get."

"It's a great functionality for the end user, but as a business, it costs more," says Manik Bambha, co-founder and president of ViewLift, a white-label OTT platform. "The ingestion protocol completely changed," he notes. Instead of working with 7Mbps, Bambha says he is handling files with 40Mbps–50Mbps. To do this, stations need (new) encoders for 4K video and 5.1 audio, which of course requires an upfront capital outlay.It might cost an additional $20,000 per station for encoder upgrades ($5,000 for an old encoder vs $15,000 for a 4K encoder, for a primary and secondary encoder), or $3–$5 million to upgrade broadcast infrastructure for a media company with 200+ stations. [Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated it would take up to $3-$5 million per station.]

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