The Advanced Television Systems Committee has not even completed work on the ATSC 2.0, which is scheduled to be finalized in 2012, and has only started preliminary work on its vision for a next generation of TV, dubbed ATSC 3.0, which could take 10 years or more to be implemented.
Yet it is already apparent that the initial work on ATSC 3.0, which has not yet gone into a more formal process for creating a standard, raises some very profound issues that broadcasters and vendors will need to closely watch, both for their impact on the current debates over spectrum and the longerterm future of broadcasting.
Given the difficulties of predicting the needs of broadcasters 10 or 20 years down the road, the organization has spent the last year collecting information on a wide range of technologies, operating under the sensible assumption that the best way to build great technology for the future is to explore many possible approaches.
“Everything is open at this point,” notes Yiyan Wu, principal research scientist at the Communications Research Centre Canada and board member of ATSC, who is working on some cutting-edge systems for more efficient use of spectrum. “Nothing is off the table.”
Of particular note are technologies to allow broadcasters to use spectrum more efficiently by improving transmission, reception, modulation and video compression; improved features for mobile services; next-generation HD services; and technologies that would allow broadcasters to develop new revenue streams and better serve the growing consumer demand for more content on more devices, explain several people involved in the planning process.
Mark Richer, ATSC president, stresses the group has not yet formally committed to creating ATSC 3.0 and that it will need to offer a very significant improvement over the current systems. “Unless it is a big jump, we won’t do it,” Richer notes. “It just won’t be worth it.”
While this effort holds open the prospect of revitalizing the broadcast business with a host of new services, the new technologies needed for such dramatic improvements mean that ATSC 3.0 would not be compatible with existing systems and would entail a massive upgrade in facilities.
“The technology is not going to be easy, but the technology challenges are going to be far easier than the business side,” notes Jim Kutzner, PBS chief engineer, who has been chairing a planning committee on ATSC 3.0.
The politics of spectrum poses another major challenge. Kutzner and others worry that the FCC’s plans to further reduce spectrum for over-the-air broadcasts might severely limit or even cripple their efforts to include new features to enable the new services needed to revitalize the broadcast business.
“If we have 20 fewer channels or whatever the number ends up being in the FCC plan, and you add in the fact that we’ve just lost a bunch of spectrum a couple of years ago in the digital transition, everything becomes much more difficult,” Kutzner argues. “Now is the time to convey those concerns and get them on the table with the FCC.”
Yet the industry’s interest developing such futuristic technologies could also provide a powerful argument in the spectrum debate.
“The potential loss of spectrum makes it more difficult to plan and implement ATCS 3.0. But on the other hand, it shows the regulatory folks that broadcasters are working to innovate and adapt to new technologies,” notes Jay Adrick, vice president of broadcast technology in the Broadcast Communications division of Harris Corp. and vice chairman of ATSC. “It shows that broadcasters aren’t just sitting idly by and waiting to pass into obsolescence.”
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