Rubber Hits the Road For the Next Big Things

With the Advanced Television Systems Committee hoping to complete work on a candidate standard for ATSC 3.0 in the first half of 2015, there has been a flurry of research and development activity to create technologies for a next-generation broadcast system.

That being no small issue in the world of TV technology, it has produced many proposals and a number of major field tests. On Oct. 22, LG, Zenith and GatesAir conducted the second round of successful broadcasts of 4K and mobile signals at WKOW in Madison, Wis., using their Futurecast Universal Terrestrial Broadcasting System.

In another landmark test, Sinclair worked with Technicolor to broadcast 4K and mobile content at Sinclair’s experimental OFDM transmission system in Baltimore in October and in November, One Media, the joint venture between Coherent Logic and Sinclair, is also planning to demo their next-generation broadcast platform at Sinclair’s station KEYE in Austin, Texas.

All of these tests, which demonstrated the transmission of 4K content and HD content to TVs and mobile devices, highlight the potential business opportunities a new broadcast standard might create. These include the transmission of 4K programming, broadcasts of mobile TV to cars speeding down freeways, video-on-demand, data services, interactive TV and even new services for the emerging Internet of Things eco systems, which is currently one of the hottest topics in the electronics world.

So far, the tests have featured a number of notable advances. The Sinclair test with Technicolor, for example, was the first successful broadcast of Scalable HEVC (SHVC) compression, says Alan Stein, VP of technology at Technicolor.

Scalable coding will also be a major feature of the upcoming One Media test in Austin in November, adds Kevin Gage, executive VP/CTO of One Media. That technology is important because it provides broadcasters with a more efficient and robust way to reach a variety of devices, ranging from TV sets with very high quality 4K content to mobile devices.

“It gives us the level of flexibility we haven’t had to date in broadcast,” says Gage. “We have to avoid the cul-de-sac we are in with the current standard….Three years from now, we can’t be in a position to be stuck with a platform that isn’t flexible enough to address change in business, technology, regulatory or consumer demands.”

The next generation transmission technologies also provide for much greater throughput of data and better penetration of buildings, notes Brady Dreasler, chief engineer for Quincy Group, which hosted Futurecast tests at its WKOW in Madison. “We were able to get reception inside a terrain-shielded building 40 miles from the transmitter,” he says. “That is very exciting.”

But implementation of these technologies raises thorny questions that are likely to dominate discussions about the future of the broadcast industry in 2015 and beyond.

In the short run, there continues to be a heated debate over the best system for the ATSC 3.0 transmission system and it isn’t clear how quickly the broadcast industry can reach a consensus on the issue.

The need for speed in reaching an agreement is important because the FCC’s upcoming spectrum auctions are scheduled for mid-2015. If broadcasters can’t implement the new standard before the subsequent FCC mandated spectrum repacking they would have to wade through two costly transitions.

Some believe the new standard can be implemented before then. “We plan to have a candidate standard for at least the key piece of the physical layer in the beginning of the second quarter of 2015 and a proposed standard by the end of 2015 or early 2016,” says Mark Richer, president of ATSC.

Another hurdle is the fact that ATSC 3.0 won’t be compatible with any TV set or other device currently on the market. Multichannel subscribers won’t be affected, but broadcasters might have to invest huge sums of money in dongles— the small piece of hardware that allows for audio, video and other functionality on computers and TVs—and other devices, so millions of non-pay-TV subs could receive over-the-air signals.

“There is a lot of discussion in the industry and at ATSC about the transition,” says Wayne Luplow, VP at the LG-owned Zenith R&D Lab. “But right now I don’t think anyone is yet gelling around a particular answer.”

Broadcasters are also under pressure from telcos. Some of them may get additional spectrum through the FCC auctions and many of them are working to deploy LTE Broadcast technologies, which would greatly strengthen their ability to deliver video over their cellular networks. (For more on that technology, go to

The growing importance of mobile delivery has made better transmission of video to mobile devices one of the top priorities of the ATSC 3.0 efforts and many of the proposed technologies. All the tests covered here use OFDM modulation and are designed to incorporate single-frequency networks (SFN), which will improve mobile reception. “In our tests we were able to receive a mobile broadcast 15 miles from the tower going 70 miles an hour in a car,” says Stein at Technicolor.

Richer at ATSC adds that other key components of the new standard include greater flexibility so that it doesn’t become quickly outmoded by technological change; much-improved throughput so that broadcasts can handle 4K signals and deliver much stronger reception of HD or SD signals to mobile devices; advanced audio capabilities; and the move to an IP-based system.

“It will be the first broadcast TV standard that is IP-based, as opposed to MPEG transport-based,” says Richer. This will also help with mobile delivery and a host of possible new data services.

Richer adds that it is likely they will be using the newest compression standard, HEVC, and that the physical layer of the standard will likely draw from a number of different technologies, including some existing standards such as DVB-T2.

“Some of the main concepts may come from DVB-T2 but some of the concepts from LTE are also being looked at along with some of the newer ideas proposed by our participants,” he says. “I can’t go into too much detail at this point. But I would say we are trying to pick the best of all worlds.”

The Sinclair, Technicolor test in October used DVB-T2 as the physical layer, though Stein stresses they aren’t wedded to DVB-T2 and admits that a number of U.S. broadcasters are skeptical of DVB-T2.

“I think that the broadcast community is still of various minds about whether DVB-T2 can serve the mobile market and reliably deliver signals to mobile devices,” says Stein. “I think our tests [where broadcasts were successfully delivered to a fast moving car] surprised a lot of people who don’t think DVB-T2 was capable of that.”

One Direction

Skepticism over DVB-T2 and worries that the ATSC was moving in the wrong direction with the new standard led to the creation of One Media by Sinclair and Coherent Logic. It currently employs about 30 engineers that are working on a next-generation transmission system.

Gage at One Media notes that they were concerned that the proposal being sent to the ATSC was “very 4K-centric, which is a big driver for the consumer electronics industry….We agree with the importance of 4K but we didn’t think that it should be limited to that….We need to be focused on mobile. We need very robust indoor reception and we need flexibility to take advantage of different technologies in the future.”

DVB-T2 isn’t the best way to achieve those goals, Gage believes. In their approach they’ve drawn heavily from LTE, adopting the Turbo code that is the bedrock of LTE, and are including a variety of things to make the system more flexible, such as channel bonding, signaling and SHVC.

SHVC and scalable video coding or layered coding are particularly interesting technologies, Stein and Gage argue. It allows a video bit stream to be broken into subsets, which makes it easier to provide multiple layers of service so that the quality of a signal can move from 4K to HDTV, standard definition or even audio without it breaking up or disappearing as the signal weakens.

“You might have a 4K signal for a fixed device [like a TV set] but the mobile device with a less complex chip set would only have to take the HD or SD signal,” Gage says. “It is another example of the flexibility we have to have in the new standard.”

Mobile and 4K are also key components of the new Futurecast system developed by LG/Zenith and GatesAir.

Luplow at the LG-owned Zenith R&D Lab says that the new system offers greatly expanded throughput so that they could deliver 4K Ultra HD content and two robust mobile TV streams in a single 6-Megahertz channel in Wisconsin during their tests.

“Bits are bucks and the more bits you can put out will turn into more dollars for broadcasters in the future,” he says.

Overall, the system-provided data throughput increases 30% along with much improved indoor reception.

Like the other proposed technologies it is IP-based and designed to handle SFNs.

Luplow also stresses that it is a complete system, which he believes will provide better efficiency and performance than one patched together from different technologies.

Dreasler at Quincy adds that the process of upgrading their transmitter to the new system was relatively easy. “We just put in a new exciter from GatesAir and it was back up and running in a minute,” he says.

It isn’t clear, however, how easily and quickly the industry can come together on the new standard, given the notable differences between the Sinclair/One Media approaches and the direction being taken by ATSC on issues such as the use of parts of the DVB-T2 standard.

And that only begins to suggest the many difficult business issues the transition to a new standard poses. Unlike the transition from analog to digital, broadcasters will not have extra spectrum to simultaneously deliver two signals as consumers, who typically buy new TV sets only every seven to eight years, gradually buy new ones here.

To overcome that problem, broadcasters might work together in larger markets to share spectrum for broadcasting signals or they could subsidize the cost of devices to help over-the-air homes.

About 100 million homes, or 88% of all TV homes, have a pay-TV service and wouldn’t be affected. But the NAB cites a study by the Knowledge Networks saying 46 million people, or 15% of all U.S. households with TVs rely solely on over-the-air signals to watch their television programming. Nielsen says there are about 12 million OTA homes or about 10% of all TV homes, a number that is probably more accurate.

That means broadcasters would either have to write off those audiences—producing a 10% to 15% decline in their ratings and presumably revenue—or come up with some ways of getting them a dongle or some other device that could receive the new signals.

At $30 to $40 a device, it would cost consumers or broadcasters some $500 million-$700 million to outfit 15% of all TV homes. Hitting a larger share of the population, which would probably be necessary to attract major advertisers for new services, could cost billions.

Nor is it clear if the vision of capturing huge mobile audiences will pay off. Current efforts to broadcast TV signals to mobile devices have flopped because the telcos, which subsidize the cost of phones, have not been willing to ask smartphone makers to produce devices that can receive the broadcasts.

As they roll out their own LTE Broadcast services, these telcos may be even more unwilling to require devices capable of receiving the signals.

That means broadcasters will have to subsidize the cost of these devices—something that would produce a big hit to their profit margins—or get Congress and regulators to mandate their use, a move that officials have not been willing to do in the past.

“It is a big challenge to make the transition from a first-generation digital technology to a second-generation digital technology,” Richer says. But while acknowledging the growing pains, he stresses that there has been tremendous industry support for the idea of a new standard.

“It will take some new business strategies to make this a success, but the idea that you can go on just transmitting to one kind of big TV in one room of the house for the next 25 or 30 years is probably not the best business strategy,” he says. “If broadcasters see this as an entrepreneurial opportunity to create news businesses, they will find ways to make it a success.”