ATSC Plans Not as Easy as 1, 2.0, 3.0

As the digital TV standards group turns 30, all thoughts are on forging the next generation of broadcast technology
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The Advanced Television Systems Committee will have many reasons to look back and look ahead at its annual meeting on May 9. The group will certainly celebrate big milestones: the 30th anniversary of its 1983 founding, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Grand Alliance consortium that created the digital TV system leading to the vaunted ATSC standard. But the agenda will also include discussions of key technical issues facing the broadcast industry, starting with the variety of new technologies that will form the basis of the upcoming ATSC 2.0 and ATSC 3.0 standards.

Those efforts squarely address many of the biggest issues facing the broadcast industry-the consumer shift toward viewing video on Internet-connected devices, rapid changes in mobile technologies, the personalization of advertising and content, the ongoing battle over spectrum and the speed at which broadcasters can adapt to a rapidly changing technological and media landscape.

How fast those new technologies make their way into the market remains an open question, however. The closest to market is ATSC 2.0, a suite of standards that will add new features for second-screen applications, interactivity, targeted advertising, improved video compression, security and digital rights management features that will enable subscription and other newer business models, and the non-real-time delivery of files that will allow users to access news clips and other programming on demand.

ATSC 2.0 is expected to be a candidate standard in the next few months, says Rich Chernock, CTO of Triveni Digital and chairman of ATSC Technology Group 1, which is overseeing the development of ATSC 2.0 and other standards.

ATSC Gets a Facelift

ATSC 2.0 is backwards-compatible with existing digital TV systems and is a major upgrade to the ATSC standard, which will limit its impact on broadcast infrastructure. But existing ATSC TV sets won't be able to handle all the new features, and ATSC 2.0-capable devices are not expected to hit the market before 2014.

Earlier this year, ATSC set up an implementation team to work with broadcasters, consumer electronics manufacturers and vendors to help speed the rollout of ATSC 2.0.

"They are talking about what features would make the most sense to [include] in early trials and prototypes," Chernock says.

In those discussions, broadcasters and set manufacturers have been most interested in second-screen applications, non-real-time delivery of content and interactive triggers, Chernock adds.

"When we first started working on ATSC 2.0, there wasn't really a second-screen ecosystem and there wasn't a requirement to support it," he says. "It really came out of nowhere and has become a very important capability."

Exact costs for upgrading to 2.0 will depend on which features broadcasters choose to implement. But it will not require major changes to facilities. While the move to 2.0 will require new encoders to handle Advanced Video Coding (AVC) H.264 and some other upgrades for interactive and data broadcasts, "it won't touch much of the existing broadcast infrastructure," Chernock says.

Over time, 2.0 will also open up new business opportunities for advertising, subscription and transactional services. "It opens up a lot of different relationships with viewers that broadcasters haven't been able to offer in the past," he adds.

Fast-Tracking ATSC 3.0

Much bigger changes will occur with ATSC 3.0, which will bring in a completely new transmission system and will not be compatible with existing ATSC TV sets or broadcast infrastructure. Breaking with the past will, however, allow the group to explore a number of newer technologies, including Ultra HD.

Currently, the organization is pushing forward on an aggressive timetable to finish the standard by the end of 2015, notes Jim Kutzner, senior director of advanced technology at PBS and chairman of Technology Group 3, which is spearheading the 3.0 effort.

Key goals for ATSC 3.0 will be a system that is much more flexible and efficient with spectrum; integration with other delivery technologies, such as mobile; targeted advertising capabilities; features for personalized content; immersive viewing experiences that would include 4K or Ultra HD as well as advanced audio; better compression, most likely using the new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard; and plans to make the standard more compatible with systems used outside the U.S.

While ATSC 3.0 will not be backwards-ATSC compatible, many applications for interactivity, on-demand content and other features from 2.0 are likely to become part of 3.0, says ATSC president Mark Richer.

"We talk about ATSC 3.0 as a clean slate," Richer says. "But we won't have to reinvent everything for 3.0, and a lot of what has been done in the past will move into 3.0."

In addition to a number of daunting technical challenges, upcoming spectrum auctions are complicating the development effort. The Federal Communications Commission has said it wants to finish the rules on the auctions in 2013 and hold them in 2014, raising the threat that the government could move forward to repack spectrum before 3.0 is ready.

Kutzner and Richer are optimistic that this problem will be avoided. "I think it is an opportunity for the government and the industry to come together and do the right thing in a logical manner," Kutzner says.

"If the auction and repacking go forward on the accelerated schedule it would be really unfortunate, because it would make moving to a new transmission system much more difficult and costly," Kutzner adds. "On the heels of the digital transition we just finished, we are being asked to do one more transition with the repack.... Then, if you ask broadcast to do it one more time, I don't know how they will do it."

Just how much the transition to 3.0 will cost is difficult to determine.

Kutzner stresses, however, that the move to 3.0 won't entail a complete rebuilding of the broadcast infrastructure outside the transmission system and that it will likely be done in stages. "I see most of the broadcast infrastructure remaining completely viable after the transition to 3.0 transmissions," he says.

On the mobile front, one option for the new 3.0 standard would be to make it more compatible with LTE and mobile networks. But DVD-2 and other possibilities will also be considered, Kutzner says.

Whatever choice is made, the group plans to make the 3.0 standard versatile enough to deliver different types of content to a variety of devices. "Broadcasters who want to focus on mobile need to have the flexibility to do that," along with the ability to deliver very high-resolution 4K or Ultra HD content, he says.

To achieve 4K broadcasts, 3.0 will likely include support for Ultra HD or 4K and rely on HEVC, which requires only one-quarter the bandwidth needed by MPEG-2 currently being used in ATSC. "We seem to be getting a new video codec about every 10 years and HEVC is coming along at the right time," Kutzner says. "It will take a few years for it to be fully developed but the timing is about right for 3.0."

The group continues to work on mobile emergency alert systems, adds Jay Adrick, broadcast technology advisor to Harris Broadcast and the ATSC chair of the M-EAS Implementation Team.

"We started last June with the process at ATSC and Mobile-EAS became a standard on March 11," he says. "That is pretty much a record time to go from a proposal to a full standard that has been tested and verified."

However, more work needs to be done in the implementation and Adrick's committee is currently looking at the best way to bring together or aggregate the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) message and the rich media and video supplied by stations.

Adrick expects two vendors to have complete solutions for delivering the M-EAS alerts in August and that his committee will have completed its work on the best architecture for aggregating the content.

"There are currently 144 stations on the air today with mobile DTV broadcasts in the U.S. and we expect by the end of the year that there will be over 200," he says.

Once his group sorts through the best way to implement the standard, he expects a number of those stations to start offering the emergency alerts, which could include video clips, maps of a tornado's expected path, forecasts, information on evacuation routes and other materials. "It will be a major advance over the current system," he says.

Concerns over Aereo's service, which streams broadcast signals to IP connected and mobile devices, has also boosted broadcaster interest. "Certainly, Aereo is a driving factor and the general activities of the wireless industry to go after spectrum has caused broadcast to realize it is now or never, so let's get on with it," Adrick says.

E-mail comments to gpwin@oregoncoast.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow

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