ATSC 3.0: NextGen TV Has Finally Arrived
Can the cloud help? "Because the original signal is so heavy, sending it to the cloud is possible, but almost nobody does because it's very, very expensive," Bambha says. "Your ongoing costs increase, because if you are encoding and storing from 4K all the way down to what your mobile device will consume, you've added two more formats."
Is there a payoff in terms of video quality? Unfortunately, the difference is only really noticeable for consumers who are watching on larger screens, according to Bambha.
ATSC 3.0 Customization
"What's interesting to the streaming audience is that in many cases, the technology can be facilitated and improved by using a hybrid approach," says Noland. There is signaling in the broadcast stream that tells the TV there's additional content available. "You might have your mainstream content coming over the air, and you might have substitute content coming in over the top," states Noland. For example, if someone is watching a PBS station pledge drive, the station could switch them over immediately to view alternative content, while the live broadcast continues to raise money. Another example would be a baseball game headed to extra innings or a football game going into overtime. Viewers would be able to decide whether they want to continue watching the game or switch to regularly scheduled programming.
ATSC 3.0 Monetization Benefits
This same approach could be used for ad targeting. "I think that there are a couple of areas people are really excited about exploring. One is certainly the dynamic ad insertion being done on cable and streaming platforms today. ATSC 3.0 makes that possible in new ways," Noland says. "Think about the dynamic ad insertion piece of it: The mainstream ad is going to be over the air, and then there might be three or four alternate ads that the TV can swap out on-the-fly [from OTT]."
While targeting is already being done based on privacy-compliant viewer profiles, ATSC 3.0 also allows viewers to choose the ads they want to see. Stations could throw up a graphic asking if the viewer prefer sports cars or trucks and then play back the appropriate creative, says Noland. This could improve both the experience for the viewer and the targeting success for the advertiser.
Moving from advertising to subscriptions or transactional viewing is up next. "There is the ability to do subscription services with the ATSC 3.0 information," says Noland. One version would be delivered OTA, while OTT can be used for paid supplementary services such as better resolution, director's cuts, interactive features, or longer rental times. This priority option may become a revenue opportunity if consumers are willing to pay for access to this additional content on top of the free content broadcasters are required to air.
ATSC 3.0 is a standard meant to display correctly on various compliant TV sets. Hybrid OTA-OTT service is available from a broadcaster-supplied app. A standard app framework called Run3TV allows broadcasters to easily create apps for their stations. "For the last 2 years, we've been developing Run3TV," says Raj Patel, co-founder and CEO of Yotta Media Labs. "What we've been doing in the framework is trying to add support for streaming functionality. This means whether it's encrypted or not, whether it's H.264 or H.265 or different audio codecs, we can execute these streams on receivers today that are 3.0 capable."
Run3TV uses DASH JS and HLS JS. "We're using the receivers' media for the broadcast side," Patel says. "Broadcasters have a choice, because they can reuse their broadcast streams if they're already doing packaging themselves. For OTT, there is a different player, the application media player (AMP) player, and this is a standard HTML5 browser."
ATSC wants apps to be developed by people who have standard web development skills and can be found in television stations' digital department staff. Broadcasters are able to skin their application, make it branded to the station, and repurpose the feeds they are already using on their digital properties to "ease in" to having a presence, Patel says. "We're trying to expand the ecosystem where there are other dev houses that can offer other services that can be leveraged. We can leverage other third-party applications to use the framework from one app for another [as long as the app is HTML5]," he adds.
All About ATSC 3.0 Apps
Developers can either use the Run3TV framework or create their own HTML5-compliant app. Evoca and ViewLift have done the latter. Evoca went with app developer Vewd Software to create an environment that can run on a NextGen TV or an ATSC 3.0 set-top box (which removes the need for a new ATSC 3.0 TV). "You can receive 4K streams with immersive audio," says Henrik Sten, VP of sales and business development at Vewd Software. "[You can] embed applications in the broadcast, which means you can do certain things that were impossible before. We've had OTT streaming apps that have done these things, but it hasn't been possible to do over broadcast." European broadcasts have had this for some time with digital video broadcasting (DVB), but interactive broadcasting is new to the U.S. market.
"We've got this converged architecture where we're merging streaming with broadcast, and it works out well," Achilles says. "We think broadcast is a better way to stream, because we get all the one-to-many efficiencies. I can push a 4K stream to 100,000 households, and it's just one stream out of the transmitter rather than 100,000 simultaneous 4K streams. That gives us massive efficiencies, which we can use to lower the cost of our service."
Evoca built its network to make a routing decision for each channel or each piece of content. If a lot of people are going to watch it, it's multicast over the air, otherwise, it's sent OTT. Evoca took advantage of ATSC 3.0 early on to create a service for the local Boise market and has since branched out into several other markets in Colorado and Arizona. It broadcasts national, regional, and local channels. "We do some things on a market-by-market basis that are unique to those specific markets," Achilles says. Evoca has also lowered its cost from $49 per month to a lifetime fee of $9.50 per month.
Evoca offers a set-top box that removes the need for consumers to buy a new ATSC 3.0-compliant TV.
Evoca's home screen is easy to use and combines OTT and OTA delivery. "Our user experience has two parts. One is a linear set of channels. Some of those we deliver over the air, some we deliver over the internet," Achilles says. "Then there's a whole set of VOD [video-on-demand] applications that are available on the box, like classic streaming apps." The VOD applications are datacast to the box or TV, downloading over time.
ViewLift encodes and transcodes content, as well as creates custom apps for customers who want a distinct user experience, developing HTML5 for TV and offering the native development needed for other OTT platforms. "Our focus is on how to make that brand more specific and more unique" Bambha says. "I think the key difference between Run3TV and us is [that] they provide a framework where multiple channels can be offered in the same experience and apps, and they keep the experience the same. We are more designed to serve individual [broadcast] brands."
ViewLift has found that VOD programming has since been replaced by people wanting to switch on the TV and immediately start watching. "My message to all the tier two and three stations is [that] people are going to consume much better and more on digital," Bambha says. Right now, some of his customers are making millions of dollars a year, which is additional revenue they weren't seeing in past. "These FAST channels are driving real revenue of around $18 to $35 CPM for direct sales for premium content. We have customers making $2 to $3 million a month for OTT advertising."
Datacasting Number Crunching
"Broadcasters have different ideas about what the important business models are," Noland says. "Some of the broadcasters are looking at datacasting as an important business model where ATSC is capable of delivering not just television services, but also data services."
But not everyone believes that datacasting makes sense. Akamai did some proofs of concept several years ago to see if there would be an alternative distribution channel. "It became apparent there are headwinds with that solution," says Will Law, chief architect of the edge technology group at Akamai. "OTT delivery moves content from origins through CDNs, last mile and home Wi-Fi networks, to the clients. Congestion is possible at any of those hops."
It is appealing to conceive of a solution that uses datacasting to bypass that congestion and bring content directly to the CDN edge region or home device. However, there are a few practical problems with this approach: There's not enough market penetration of ATSC 3.0 tuners yet, tuners that are accessible are in TVs and not in the tablets and phones where downloads are being consumed, there's no back channel to audit what has been received, and there's no national coalition of broadcasters. "There is a lot of overhead in having to strike distribution deals with 34 different stations that own the towers. We would want a national API to say, ‘OK, distribute this payload across the country and then charge us for it,'" Law says.
Finally, there's the economics to consider. "If your CDN high-volume price is in the $0.001 per gigabyte range, that's a tenth of a cent for a gigabyte of content. An ATSC 3.0 6 MHz datacasting slot might allow you 2Mbps, which over 24 hours would be around 270GB. The potential revenue is at most 27 cents per receiver per day," Law says. Additionally, CDN unicasting prices historically have fallen every year. "So if you're a broadcaster considering datacasting to home users," Law notes, "you're entering an established industry with cutthroat competition and falling prices. As a station owner, is datacasting the best use of your spectrum and plant?
"The assumption is that datacasting is automatically thousands of times more bit-efficient than unicasting. That's true if everyone's consuming the same content at the same time," Law says. "This is generally not the case. Streaming is rarely so uniform unless it's a large, compelling event. Most of the time, people are downloading different things, so datacasting has the challenge of finding sufficient volume that needs a parallel distribution mechanism."
Other ATSC 3.0 Business Models
Datacasting might not appeal to the streaming industry, but here's something that might: While broadcasters are constrained by complicated rights agreements, could ATSC 3.0 cause a whole new field of content licensing to develop for broadcasters that are looking for supplemental content from niche streaming services?
With the technology now supporting OTA-OTT, the OTT side of the equation could offer an opportunity. Content feeds would be able to be supported in potentially higher resolution than what some of the current D2C streaming services are distributing. Think 4K for those services that want to distribute but haven't gone there for one reason or another.
"It's still early days; it'll take some time for users to get used to, but they will come and completely change the consumption of live TV," says Sten. "In terms of pure discoverability, I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of apps that have good content and are very likely bringing in new ideas and things that are just never discovered because not enough people are using those apps." Gradually, the broadcast technology will get to the point at which you won't be locked into a particular OTT service. The broadcasting ecosystem will build up its own app infrastructure with thousands of apps that users won't see as apps, just a unified experience coming in over hybrid TV, Sten says.
Whether it's Free-Ad Supported TV (FAST) or ATSC 3.0, ad tech and software companies are continuing to build out the technical infrastructure required to keep the transformations in the ad-buying market moving forward so advertisers can easily reach consumers no matter how or where they're viewing content.
ATEME VP Technology Sassan Pejhan explains how ATSC 3.0 opens up new opportunities for apps providing personalization and customization, and enables spectrum-saving HD and UHD delivery to mobile, among other benefits in this clip from Streaming Media Connect 2021.
Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) President Madeleine Noland explains how ATSC 3.0 came about, what a quantum leap it represents over ATSC 1.0, and how it's designed both to reflect the emergence of 4K, HDR, and other essential elements of current-day OTA and OTT, but how the IP-based standard is built with the elasticity to accommodate new developments as well.
The broadcast industry has been looking for ways to compete with OTT, and ATSC 3.0 gives it its last, best chance.
NAB and others have been working on the ATSC 3.0 spec for a decade, and in 2020 we'll finally see it in action across the United States