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3 Things the Streaming Industry Must Do to Prepare for ATSC 3.0

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2020 is set to be the Year of ATSC 3.0, proclaims a recent StreamingMedia.com feature, talking about the 3.0 version of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) standard.

“On the broadcast front,” the article notes, “it appears that everything’s on track for a 2020 debut of transmissions using the newest ATSC 3.0 standard.”

The standard holds promise for more than just over-the-air (OTA) broadcast, since it uses an internet protocol (IP)-based transmission. As a result, there’s more than just a significant amount of retooling to be done on the OTA broadcast front. In fact, there’s probably more work to be done in the streaming industry to bring our delivery systems in line with what we expect to be a significant advance in live-linear delivery to television tuners as well as mobile smartphones and tablets.

In the year that I’m dubbing as The Year Before the Year of ATSC 3.0, here are three main suggestions for the streaming industry.

1. Lock down consistent frame rates. From its inception, the streaming industry has been focused a “best effort” delivery approach, sacrificing quality and frames per second—or even over several seconds, if data networks were highly intermittent—in an effort to deliver a media program that would not buffer or lag.

In other words, the overarching streaming assumption was that consumers wanted an hour-long program that lasted an hour, even if it meant skipping a few or many frames along the way. If quality were lowered, though, all the frames would be delivered across networks never designed to deliver video.

That needs to change. Quality and consistent frame rate for streaming needs to meet at least the bare minimum of OTA broadcast transmission.

2. Expand the use of wide color gamut (WCG) and high dynamic range (HDR). One exciting part of the ATSC 3.0 specification is the fact that the tuners will allow WCG based on Rec. 2020 rather than on the more limited color palette used in Rec. 709 in conjunction with HDR delivery.

Streaming has only begun to adopt HDR and WCG, but we need to adopt it rapidly in the coming year.

3. Tune the quality of streaming delivery to the highest common denominator, not the lowest.One complaint in streaming delivery, especially for on-demand content, is the initial few seconds has much lower quality than the rest of the video.

This is due, in part, to a trend that Apple’s Roger Pantos spoke about during his presentation at Streaming Media West 2018. The inventor of Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) challenged the audience to push out the first few segments (a typical segment being 2 to 10 seconds in length) at at least a mid-level quality so that the entire experience wasn’t ruined by the critical first 30 seconds of an on-demand title looking subpar.

If we meet those three challenges, we might just get close to meeting the new ATSC 3.0 specifications for quality delivery.

Broadcast never has the issues noted above: fewer frames or varying quality (at least from a transmission standpoint), and it can deliver full WCG and HDR.

Broadcast almost always delivers all the frames all the time, in large part because it’s done using a purpose-built network designed for optimal video delivery. Even when U.S.-based analog NTSC signals were the state-of-the-art, a finely tuned analog broadcast rivaled the quality of even second-generation digital delivery and far outpaced all but the past three or four years’ worth of streaming video delivery quality.

The advent of purpose-built, IP-based, OTA broadcasts will be a benefit to the streaming industry. But we have to step up our game to meet the higher quality standards that ATSC 3.0 brings to the table. We’ve got a year to get it right, or risk losing the streaming revolution to the very medium that early streaming visionaries sought to supplant.

Editor's note: Tim Siglin talks more about ATSC 3.0 in this episode of Beamr's "The Video Insiders" podcast.  

[This article appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "The Year Before the Year of ATSC 3.0."]

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Mon., Oct. 19, by Tim Siglin