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ATSC 3.0: The Future Is Now

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It's hard to get excited about a new 2,000-page broadcast transmission standard, so in this article, a couple of industry experts help explain why ATSC 3.0 could be the best thing for the streaming industry since sliced bread, competition, or a frenemy. 

ATSC 3.0, also known as next-gen TV, establishes an IP-based broadcast transmission system. "[This was created] in response to our broadcaster members who wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to bring together broadcast with broadband," says Madeleine Noland, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC).

The standard has been heavily influenced by web technologies and brings digital two-way communication to the broadcast environment. This year, the first commercial network broadcast went live in Las Vegas, and a number of locations in the U.S. have followed or will be doing so soon. Instead of immediately turning off ATSC 1.0 and turning on 3.0,there is a period of time when broadcasters must have spectrum-sharing arrangements and pool their bandwidth within their cellular market area (CMA) to use half the spectrum for 1.0 and half for 3.0. This means there's still time for broadcasters and streaming services to incorporate 3.0 into their road maps.

The promise of ATSC 3.0 is the ability to multicast audio, video, and data. Live streaming is often unable to scale to TV-sized audiences; one reason is that it doesn't support multicast delivery. ATSC 3.0 does, plus it allows for targeted personalized advertising, which means the broadcast world will have combined the digital promise of targeting with the audience support for broadcast, essentially changing the playing field in the broadcast versus streaming competition. "The broadcasters leading the transition have an ambitious goal of launching ATSC 3.0 service in more than 60 markets across the country. Once we get there, more than 75% of all viewers will have access to next-gen TV signals," says Noland. 

ATSC Coverage Map

A map showing the current status of ATSC 3.0 deployments across the country. According to ATSC president Madeleine Noland, more than 75% of all U.S. viewers will eventually have access to next-gen TV signals. (Image courtesy of ATSC)

However, viewers will need to get a new TV to take advantage of ATSC 3.0 content. LG, Sam­sung, and Sony all announced at CES in January that they would be rolling out ATSC 3.0-compatible models this year, and we can expect to see some by Christmas, says Michael Bouchard, VP of technology strategy at One Media, a subsidiary of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. 

Research firm Magid conducted a consu­mer study on behalf of Pearl TV, a business organi­zation that comprises more than 750 network-affiliated TV stations across the U.S., on the benefits of ATSC 3.0 versus the current stan­dard, according to Bill Hague, EVP of Magid's media strategy group. The study revealed four key benefits:

  • Better picture quality—4K and high dynamic range (HDR)
  • Better audio—immersive audio and the ability to customize audio tracks
  • Interactive content—customized adsand offers, enhanced camera angles, sports stats, and enhanced localized emergency alerts 
  • A modernized guide—the potential tosync with subscription video-on-demand, ad-supported video-on-demand, broadcast, and cable content providers

ATSC 3.0 was designed from the ground up to be a hybrid over-the-air (OTA)-OTT system, Noland says, and it's the first television standard that uses IP. That means the broadcast industry will have the ability to use commodity hardware, just like the streaming industry. 

Streaming Over the Air

How does app delivery work OTA? An app is data and a set of HTML templates that gets rendered at the receiver. The distribution of apps OTA bypasses the traditional CDN unicast model and instead uses the broadcast spectrum. The biggest benefit is that multicast delivery via broadcast spectrum can free up a whole lot of bandwidth. "It's an ATSC A/344-specification app. This is an HTML5-based app, so anyone that builds OTT apps could build this app. It's the same," says Bouchard.

"The ATSC 3.0 system enables apps to be delivered over the air, and many features can be enjoyed without an internet connection. The key for a broadcast-only app is that all the needed data must be included in the broadcast," says Noland. "U.S. broadcasters are working on getting on the air with basic TV service and simultaneously developing the foundation for app-based features, which is intended to make it easy and seamless to author and launch new apps." New apps are exactly what streaming companies should be focusing on to find new market opportunities.

ATSC 3.0 Multiple Feeds

ATSC 3.0 broadcasts will give viewers a more OTT-like viewing experience, letting them select from multiple live feeds and on-demand video content within a single channel. (Image courtesy of ATSC)

The definition of content will extend from the media we think of today to maps for in-car use, social messaging, and IoT messages on smart city sensors. The biggest challenge for streaming companies will be defining and creating these new content experiences.

"[Imagine a sports broadcast in which] the app and the stats for both teams can be delivered in the broadcast. The app can ask the viewer which is their favorite team, and then it can display the stats for just that team," says Noland. "If there is an internet connection, the app can be delivered via the broadcast and then utilize the internet connection to do even more, such as offer an opportunity to buy a favorite player's jersey." 

"The good news is that apps built for traditional app stores like Google Play Store or iOS use the same underlying technologies as the ATSC 3.0 apps," says Ashwini Koppisetti, head of marketing and user experience design for engineering company Gaian Solutions. 

"It needs to be converted into a .pkg file, which is a compressed multipart file appPackage, and a HELD [HTML entry page location descriptor] signal is delivered to an ATSC 3.0/ATSC 1.0 chain, which converts these IP-based packages to STLTP (Studio-to-Transmitter Link Transport Protocol) format," Koppisetti says. "STLTP is used by the exciter/transmitter at the TV station to convert it to RF [radio frequency] signals which then get broadcasted."

While the majority of broadcasters' apps can run in the standard browser typically available on most smart TVs today, ATSC has defined a number of application programming interfaces (APIs) that are specific to TV and live outside of the browser environment. To implement some of these TV-specific APIs to handle things like remote control navigation and voice, app creators will need to look at the extensive documentation available at go2sm.com/atscwp. 

Hello (DASH) World

ROUTE DASH, the transport system for ATSC 3.0, is based on MPEG-DASH and is a mechanism for delivering DASH segments over the IP ATSC 3.0 system, Noland says. Digital content distribution under ATSC 3.0 can be packaged as DASH segments and delivered over IP. "Getting your content ready for distribution becomes easier, regardless of whether you want to go over the air or over the internet or both," says Noland. "Some of the service is delivered over the air, and other parts are delivered over the top or via streaming, and they can easily be combined at the receiver because it's all IP." 

From an operational perspective, content can be encoded once and used a number of times for broadcast and digital delivery. DASH segments will need shorter GOP sizes to enable the low-latency, immediate response that the channel-surfing, click-happy viewer expects.

Broadcasters that are currently sending out 720p will now be able to deliver 1080p HDR. "The difference from SDR to HDR is much more dramatic than from 720p to 1080p. People really noticed the vibrant colors," says Bouchard. "You're going to have a better picture for your over-the-air signal, because we upscale it and we enhance it to HDR." 

"The signal quality that you're going to get for both video and audio for ATSC 3.0 is going to be noticeably better," says Mark Myslinski, broadcast solutions manager at Synamedia. OTA penetration using antennas has been on the rise. "Once people see the signal quality that you can get over the air, expect viewing to increase." 

Interactivity

"The stuff that's going to go over the air is the one-to-many use case, the stuff that is going to be used by the mass majority of people. That's why the weather forecast makes sense," says Bouchard. So in, say, San Francisco, top local news, sports, and weather is within the use case, while other content is more long tail. That's where a unicast model makes more sense.

"If we're transmitting a baseball game, it's going over the air, but there's a number of things that we can do with that baseball game in 1080p HDR," says Bouchard. "If we're using something like MMT [MPEG media transport] with SHBC [second harmonic bandwidth com­pres­sion], we could send the 4K layer via broadband. So if you have a connected TV, you can watch it in 4K."

ATSC 3.0 Interactivity

ATSC offers real-time interactivity, which opens up new possibilities for educational programming. (Image courtesy of Gaian)

What might this look like? "Broadcasters are going to announce they're going to use their security so that you can actually have a couple of channels that you'll get for free," says Myslinski. "You'll have a couple of channels that you might pay for if you want higher resolution, and they're going to be able to do pay-per-view events. So you're going to have your own skinny bundle of broadcast content, which is unique and can be added to other skinny bundles that people have." 

If the aforementioned baseball game goes into extra innings, the broadcaster can spin up a temporary "flash channel" and give viewers the choice about whether they want to see the remainder of the game or go to the evening newscast that's scheduled for the same time. These temporary flash channels can also allow broadcasters to do things like broadcast press conferences or possibly give more time to something like a town hall meeting.

Parlez Vous …?

"Imagine, for example, that you live in a community that's a very heterogeneous community. You have multiple languages that are spoken throughout your market area, and you may have one or two major languages. What you might do is put those major languages out over the air," says Noland.

Then, additional languages can be broadcast on streaming, and the viewers can choose which audio they want to listen to. Audio channel capability for video feeds means you could potentially broadcast in multiple languages, using something like a machine learning-compatible translation.

Personalized Alerting

With the new ATSC 3.0 alerting and information feature, an emergency alert takes over the linear video, interrupts what viewers are watching, and for­ces them to pay attention, says Bouchard. This kind of alert might work for anything you have opted in to receive, such as school no­tifications, healthcare crisis updates, or even communication for first responders.

"We had the concept of sending information to first responders that's encrypted, so only they get it. Firemen and police departments can actually send messages to all of their personnel, encrypted, that they could get over the broadcast and not depend on other forms of communication. It acts as like a backup for cell service," says Bouchard.

Targeting

In some ways, the advertising function­ality under ATSC 3.0 is one of the more common use cases, since digital already has the capacity to use more targeted advertisements. "We've basically enabled addressable advertising already, and we've been able to do that [for local broadcasters] alongside their linear advertising," says John Morris, VP of streaming and on demand for Wide­Orbit. "On CTV [connected TV] and OTT, the various DMPs [data management platforms] are able to provide household-level audience data to folks like us who are delivering ads to those environments." 

Expect advertising to be a mix of programmatic and direct. Programmatic doesn't allow for preapproval of ad content, which makes everyone very uncomfortable. "I predict it'll be primarily direct sold in the beginning, and then programmatic will more slowly come in," 
says Morris. 

"We can do different types of targeted ads on TVs that are not connected, and it also allows us to do digital-type ads on TVs that are connected, which is a very interesting mix," says Bouchard. "In the case of connected TV, with certain markers in the video, the broadcast app knows that this could be superseded with a digital ad." That's already a familiar workflow. 

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