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Will ATSC 3.0 Play Well with Next-Gen Cable?

At the Advanced Television System Committee's  annual conference and ATSC 3.0 "boot camp" in Washington, the harsh reality of television's complex evolution came into focus via a comment from Jay Adrick, a 49-year veteran of the broadcast industry.  His views - and the broader discussion about where broadcast technology fits into the new media landscape - pose significant challenges to cable operations, which may (or perhaps not) depend in part on retransmitting broadcast channels.

Adrick, a longtime executive and now a technology advisor at GatesAir (the company formerly known as Harris, the broadcasting equipment purveyor) was riffing on "channel sharing." That's the FCC's recommendation for TV stations within a market to piggyback on a frequency in order to free spectrum for the airwaves auction and other uses.

Citing the proposal to repack the broadcast spectrum (that is, reassign local TV frequency assignments as part of the channel rearrangement) and the introduction of the new ATSC 3.0 standard plus the channel sharing plan, Adrick suggested that all three issues should be tied together as part of a regulatory revision process.

Despite the hopeful vision, most analysts don't expect such a tidy package of technical decisions, especially since the FCC has little or no role in developing the ATSC 3.0 standard. The new standard - which ATSC hopes to complete by late 2015 (after the presumed auction dates) - will include services such as hybrid Internet and over-the-air content delivery, personalization and interactivity, automatic content recognition (ACR ), second-screen apps and audience measurement tools.  Many of those features are also on cable's roadmap, albeit not necessarily using the same technology or platforms.

And that poses significant challenges when both industries move to next-generation systems. For the record, ATSC is also developing a 2.0 standard to marry broadcast and Internet, with many of the same features planned for ATSC 3.0.  The interim version will provide a toolbox (and presumably field trial opportunities) for the eventual standard.

"Our goal is to be as interoperable as possible" with cable and satellite delivery, said ATSC president Mark Richer. ATSC is continually exchanging standards and technical documents with its counterpart Society of Cable  Telecommunications Engineers. But, added Richer, "We're not writing the standard for use on cable."

"Everyone would like to have as many things in common as possible while optimizing for each pipeline," he said, noting that "certain elements will be the same."  He cites Internet Protocol transport and High Efficiency Video Coding for the next compression format as common goals for cable and broadcasting standards setters.  ATSC 3.0 also includes Ultra High Definition (4K) TV and multi-view/multi-screen video, features that are also in cable's next generation game plan.

"There is a lot in common, and we'll try to optimize as much as possible," Richer said diplomatically.  Yet even this perennial optimist acknowledges that if the technology becomes compatible - a big "IF" - the business competition between broadcasting and cable will continue. 

At the ATSC conference, broadcasting executives talked about addressable advertising, electronic service guides, multicast services and methods to bypass expensive Content Delivery Networks. All those topics are also high on cable's agenda.

They heard the words of National Association of Broadcasters president/CEO Gordon Smith, who emphasized the evolving balance between the living room and mobile video experiences.  That divergence is on the minds of cable executives with their current drive toward Wi-Fi everywhere.  

The ATSC conference - a serious geekfest of engineers intent on assuring a robust technology platform for digital services - was also a reminder of the battle for eyeballs and dollars as the media industry re-invents its technologies in ways that are likely to create new competitive issues.

Those changes will go well beyond channel assignments and technical standards.

Gary Arlen follows inter-media technology and policy from Arlen Communications (www.ArlenCom.com)