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ATSC 3.0 and the Future of Broadcast Television: OTA Meets OTT

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What if there were a video streaming service that cost nothing, was always available, and delivered ultra-high-quality video well beyond what your typical cable provider offers?

If you’re searching for just such an elusive offering, put down your mobile phone, tablet, or laptop and turn on your television. Today’s over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts via terrestrial towers—at least those aired by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and The CW, also known as the “Big 5” networks in the United States—still retain the quality edge over most over-the-top (OTT) and cable delivery.

Especially when it comes to sports, where most OTA broadcasts are at least a full 1080p resolution, the quality is stunning. In some ways it has always been this way: Even with the advent of 720p and 1080p high-definition resolutions (HD and Full HD, respectively), many broadcasters use an interlaced format (e.g., 1080i) that offers a smoothing effect for high-action sports. In many ways, this 1080i format has the same effect in 29.97 frames per second as progressive formats at double the traditional frame rate (e.g., 1080p60).

So if all this OTA goodness is available for free, why do consumers continue to pay high cable bills for an often-times inferior product?

If that question is asked only for prerecorded content such as episodic or reruns, the decision to cut the cord should be a relatively straightforward one. Yet the number one reason to remain locked in to a cable bill has little to do with prerecorded content and much to do with sports, breaking news, and other live events.

“[L]ive viewing is still the best opportunity for advertisers,” said Jack Abernethy, CEO of Fox Television, at a recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) event held in New York.

Abernethy’s comments acknowledge the fact that OTT has changed the game in terms of prerecorded content, what we in the streaming industry refer to as on-demand content. But he’s also pointing out that broadcasts of live events—whether through traditional OTA or newer live-linear OTT offerings that attempt to mimic OTA across an IP network—is still something that remains as an opportunity.

ATSC 3.0 is a top-level “parent” standard, most likely to be titled A/300. It covers the overall system, the states that must be included in an ATSC 3.0 system, and each of the component standards. (Image courtesy ATSC.)

And, from an advertiser’s perspective, a live local or national nightly news broadcast offers a chance to consistently deliver a message to a large audience in a cost-controlled way.

“People watch the commercials,” said Abernethy, referring to live news broadcasts. “Those ratings have held up pretty well as some of the entertainment properties have dropped.”

The Problem

So going back to the original premise, why wouldn’t consumers cut the cord and just use a combination of live-linear OTT like Sling TV, Hulu, or DirecTV Now and the “usual suspects” of Amazon Prime or Netflix for on-demand OTT content?

The problem for the streaming industry, at least with live events, is the still-galling inability to scale live-event OTT up to television-sized audiences. This is due to a number of factors, one of which is the continued shunning of multicast delivery. More on that topic later.

For the broadcast industry, the major problem is a bit more subtle: Besides the semi-complex issue of serving up on-demand content, broadcasters face a global inability to transmit live-linear and live-event broadcasts in a format that is complementary to IP delivery.

The likely structure of the ATSC 3.0 suite of standards as of late 2018. Note that the names, numbers, and organization are still being finalized. (Image courtesy ATSC)

Broadcasters have been stuck using the legacy interlaced transmission (the “i” in 1080i) ever since the “analog sunset” in which all U.S. broadcasters abandoned analog transmission under a government-mandated switch to digital OTA transmission in 2009. In much the same way that analog color television sets were forced to maintain backward compatibility to mid-1900s black-and-white TV technology, the use of interlaced transmissions in a digital domain was an attempt to maintain compatibility with older analog transmission infrastructures and consumer television sets.

Interlaced delivery makes absolutely no sense for streaming, as it is essentially a doubling of frames over the typical progressive frame rate.

Analog televisions were based on cathode ray tubes. The use of a CRT phosphor “gun” meant the use of interlacing was essential, since the CRT could only “paint” (or display) half the lines of a given frame at any given moment. As a result, when a 30-frame-per-second (actually 29.97) interlaced TV program was transmitted, it was based on 60 fields per second (actually 59.94).

Progressive, on the other hand, displays a full frame at one time, meaning that 30 frames per second only requires 30 frames, rather than 60 fields. This is ideal for unicast-based streaming delivery, as it limits the overall bandwidth required for stream delivery, but also suffers from an appearance of juddery or jerky images when high-motion content such as sports are delivered to an end user’s device. Some broadcasters offer 1080p transmissions, but they’re few and far between.

The Compromise

Is there a balance to be struck between live-linear OTT and classic OTA broadcasts?

Good news: The answer is yes, at least starting in 2020. That balance is an advanced television broadcasting standard being adopted across the broadcast industry called ATSC. The original ATSC standard, proposed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee in 1996, was called ATSC 1.0.

In that initial standard, the major concern was finding a way to replace the analog tuner in most televisions with a digital tuner. In August 2002, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that a series of steps was required for both broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers to help meet the stated mid-2009 deadline for the “analog sunset” changeover where broadcasters would cease transmitting OTA signals via analog equipment.

As part of this process, ATSC digital tuners were gradually added to large HDTVs in 2005, and then in 2007 to all new devices including HDTVs, VCRs, DVDs, and even digital video recorders used in cable television set-top boxes.

To aid in that initial transition, Congress authorized a subsidy of digital tuner set-top boxes which contained an ATSC-compliant digital television tuner but had analog outputs to connect to a traditional analog television. There were a few controversies surrounding the program, one of which involved the fact that analog signals output from these digital tuner boxes would not be 720 or 1080 signals but rather lower-resolution “standard definition” signals.

The other controversy was around the pricing of these ATSC digital tuner boxes. While any household in America was eligible to receive up to two $40 coupons (Congress had set aside $990 million to cover the program), the coupons expired after 90 days, after which there was no way to renew them. On top of that, the $990 million ran out quickly, so Congress had to simultaneously push back the “analog sunset” and allocate an additional $510 million in order to keep on track for a 2009 cutoff of analog transmissions.

Even so, almost 250,000 requests were made for coupons after the June 12, 2009 transition to only ATSC-compliant digital transmissions, but the coupons were not available for these consumers.

Here’s the reason I’ve spent a bit of time in this article talking about the transitionary period from analog to digital: When it comes to changing a broadcast standard, it’s more than just changing out transmission gear on a tower or (in the case of IP-based transmissions) a fiber-optic cable, and much more about how consumers will be impacted by the adoption.

How Do We Get There?

On the broadcast front, though, it appears that everything’s on track for a 2020 debut of transmissions using the newest ATSC 3.0 standard. At the NAB show mentioned at the top of the article, a number of broadcast groups announced support for ATSC 3.0 and collaboration on assuring a smooth transition. Besides Fox, there were pledged efforts by NBC, Nexstar (assisting Charter’s Spectrum in its efforts), Telemundo, and Univision.

ATSC 3.0 is an IP-based transmission, meaning that OTA towers will be sending IP in much the same way a traditional Ethernet network would transmit IP packets through a router across the public internet and on to another remote router for delivery to an end-user’s device.

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