ATSC 3.0 – More Spectrum for Broadband?

This past February the FCC approved the voluntary adoption of the new over-the-air standard for ATSC 3.0. for television stations. There will be around twenty different standards included within the final protocol that will define such things as better video and audio compression, picture improvement using high dynamic range (HDR), a wider range of colors, the ability to use immersive sound, better closed captioning, an advanced emergency alert system, better security through watermarking and fingerprinting, and the ability to integrate IP delivery.

The most interesting new feature of the new standard is that it allows programmers to tailor their TV transmission signal in numerous ways. The one that is of the most interest to the telecom world is that the standard will allow a TV broadcaster to compress the existing TV transmission into a tiny slice of the spectrum which would free up about 25 Mbps of wireless bandwidth per TV channel.

A TV station could use that extra frequency themselves or could sell it to others. Broadcasters could use the extra bandwidth in a number of ways. For example, it’s enough bandwidth to transmit their signal in 4K. Stations could also transmit their signal directly to cellphones and other mobile devices. TV stations could instead the extra bandwidth to enhance their transmissions by the addition of immersive sound and virtual reality. They could also use the extra bandwidth to transmit additional digital channels inside one slice of spectrum.

But my guess is that a lot of TV stations are going to lease the spectrum to others. This is some of the most desirable spectrum available. The VHF bands range from 30 MHz to 300 MHz and the UHF bands from 300 MHz to 3 GHz. The spectrum has the desirable characteristics of being able to travel for long distances and of penetrating easily into buildings – two characteristics that benefit TV or broadband.

The first broadcasters that have announced plans to implement ATSC 3.0 are Sinclair and Nexstar. Together they own stations in 97 markets, including 43 markets where both companies have stations. The two companies are also driving a consortium of broadcasters that includes Univision and Northwest Broadcasting. This spectrum consortium has the goal of being able to provide a nationwide bandwidth footprint, which they think is essential for maximizing the economic value of leasing the spectrum. But getting nationwide coverage is going to require adding a lot more TV stations to the consortium, which could be a big challenge.

All this new bandwidth is going to be attractive to wireless broadband providers. One has to think that the big cellular companies will be interested in the bandwidth. This also might be an opportunity for the new cellular players like Comcast and Charter to increase their spectrum footprint. But it could be used in other ways. For instance, this could be used by some new provider to communicate with vehicles or to monitor and interface with IoT devices.

The spectrum could provide a lot of additional bandwidth for rural broadband. It’s likely that in metropolitan areas that the extra bandwidth is going to get gobbled up to satisfy one or more of the uses listed above. But in rural areas this spectrum could be used to power point-to-multipoint radios and could add a huge amount of bandwidth to that effort. The channels are easily bonded together and it’s not hard to picture wireless broadband of a few hundred Mbps.

But this may never come to pass. Unlike WiFi, which is free, or 3.65 GHz, which can be cheaply licensed, this spectrum is likely to be costly. And one of the major benefits of the spectrum – the ability to travel for long distances – is also a detriment for many rural markets. Whoever is using this spectrum in urban areas is going to worry about interference from rural uses of the spectrum.

Of course, there are other long-term possibilities. As companies are able to upgrade to the new standard they will have essentially have reduced their need for spectrum. Since the TV stations were originally given this spectrum to transmit TV signals I can’t think of any reason that they should automatically be allowed to keep and financially benefit from the freed spectrum. They don’t really ‘own’ the spectrum – it was provided to them originally by the FCC to launch television technology. There are no other blocks or spectrum I can think of that are granted in perpetuity.

TV station owners like Sinclair and Nexstar are watering at the mouth over the huge potential windfall that has come their way. I hope, though that the FCC will eventually see this differently. One of the functions of the FCC is to equitably allocate spectrum to best meet the needs of all users of spectrum. If the TV stations keep the spectrum then the FCC will have ceded their spectrum management authority and it will be TV stations that determine the future spectrum winners and losers. That can’t be in the best interests of the country.

Comparing Streaming and Broadcast Video

One thing that doesn’t get talked about a lot in the battle between broadcast TV and on-line video is video quality. For the most part today broadcast TV still holds the edge over on-line video.

When you think of broadcast TV over a cable system I can’t help but remember back twenty years ago when the majority of the channels on a cable system were analog. I remember when certain channels were snowy, when images were doubled with ghosts and the first couple of channels in the cable system were nearly unwatchable. Today the vast majority of channels on most cable systems are digital, but there are still exceptions. The conversion to digital resulted in a big improvement in transmission quality.

When cable systems introduced HDTV and the quality got even better. I can remember flipping back and forth between the HD and SD versions of the same channel on my Comcast system just to see the huge difference.

This is not to say that cable systems have eliminated quality issues. It’s still common on many cable systems to see pixilation, especially during high action scenes where the background is constantly changing. All cable systems are not the same, so there are differences in quality from one city to the next. All digital video on cable systems is compressed at the head-end and decompressed at the settop box. That process robs a significant amount of quality from a transmission and one only has to compare any cable movie to one from a Blu-ray to realize how much is lost in the translation.

In the on-line world buffered video can be as good as good as cable system video. But on-line video distributors tend to compress video even more than cable systems – something they largely can get away with since a lot of on-line video is watched on smaller screens. And this means that a side-by-side comparison of SD or HD movies would usually favor the cable system. But Netflix, Amazon and a few others have one advantage today with the spectacular quality of their 4K videos – there is nothing comparable on cable networks.

But on-line live-streamed video still has significant issues. I watch sports on-line and the quality is often poor. The major problem with live-streamed video is mostly due to delays in the signal getting to the user. Some of that delay is due to latency – either latency in the backbone network between the video creator and the ISP or latency in the connection between the ISP and the end-user. Unlike downloading a data file where your computer will wait until it has collected all of the needed packets, live-streamed video is sent to end-users with whatever pixels have arrived at the needed time. This creates all sorts of interesting issues when watching live sports. For instance, there is pixilation, but it doesn’t look like the pixilation you see on cable network. Instead parts of the screen often get fuzzy when they aren’t receiving all the pixels. There are also numerous problems with the video. And it’s still not uncommon for the entire picture to freeze for a while, which can cause an agonizing gap when you are watching sports since it always seems to happen at a critical time.

Netflix and Amazon have been working with the Internet backbone providers and the ISPs to fix some of these issues. Latency delays in getting to the ISPs is shrinking and, at least for the major ISPs, will probably not be an issue. But the one issue that still needs to be resolved is the crashes that happen when the Internet gets overloaded when the demand is too high. We’re seeing ISPs bogging down when showing a popular stream like the NBA finals, compared to a normal NBA game that might only be watched by a hundred thousand viewers nationwide.

One thing in the cable system’s favor is that their quality ought to be improving a lot over the next few years. The big cable providers will be implementing the new ATSC 3.0 video standard that is going to result in a significant improvement in picture quality on HD video streams. The FCC approved the new standard earlier this year and we ought to see it implemented in systems starting in 2018. This new standard will allow cable operators to improve the color clarity and contrast on existing HD video. I’ve seen a demo of a lab version of the standard and the difference is pretty dramatic.

One thing we don’t know, of course, is how much picture quality means to the average video user. I know my teenage daughter seems quite happy watching low-quality video made by other teens on Snapchat, YouTube or Facebook Live. Many people, particularly teens, don’t seem to mind watching video on a smartphone. Video quality makes a difference to many people, but time will tell if improved video quality will stem the tide of cord cutting. It seems that most cord cutters are leaving due to the cost of traditional TV as well as the hassle of working with the cable companies and better video might not be a big enough draw to keep them paying the monthly cable bill.

Another Worry for Small Cable Providers

Satellite dish farmBoth the NCTA and ACA have both petitioned the FCC to ask the agency to not require that the new ATSC 3.0 video standard be forced onto small cable operators. Their concern is that requiring cable providers to support the new standard will require a lot of new capital expenditure with little additional revenue or benefit.

The ATSC 3.0 standard is intended to bring video signals into a new digital format that can easily be used in numerous other ways without reformatting. For example, it automatically would allow the same video signal be used for both cable TV, smartphones and other sized screens. The standard would also allow the same video signals to be easily used in new applications like billboards and other kinds of advertising. The standard is meant to make a video usable almost anywhere.

The standard is going to replace the A/53 Digital TV standard that was originally launched in 1996. That standard was intended for sending digital video signals for use on TVs. A lot has changed in the industry since 1996. We now have a proliferation of tablets and smartphones. There is a lot of demand now for better resolution video. And in many cases (like with advertising) we want videos to run at reduced bandwidth. There has also been a lot of improvement since 1996 in the codecs used to encode video.

There are some advantages of the new standard for cable headends. The ATSC 3.0 standard is going to provide a wide range of tunable operating points for transmitting a given video. The work in the labs suggests that the standard will allow transmissions of video signals to be very close to the Shannon limit (the theoretical limit of how much information can be carried over a noisy channel). This means that each video sent out over a digital network can be sized as small as possible according to the content of a given video. Talk shows with few moving parts on the screen, for example, could require less bandwidth than an action movie or sports event.

But that advantage doesn’t seem to be enough of a reason for small cable systems to want to make this upgrade. A cable system is still going to have to reserve enough bandwidth to handle those times when the TV signals are needing the most bandwidth. It’s hard – at least with today’s headends – to see the advantage of using a little less bandwidth for videos unless that can be directly translated into significantly more bandwidth for broadband.

The ATSC 3.0 standard is currently being tested by the big cable companies in Washington DC, Baltimore and Cleveland. The fear of the trade associations and their members is that programmers are going to insist that all cable headends will be required to receive video in this new format.

This standard is clearly a boon to content providers. They can create one version of a video and have it be useful everywhere. That will clearly reduce their production costs. And large cable providers like Comcast might find ways to monetize a more flexible video stream. It’s not hard to imagine Comcast finding ways to shunt video content to more platorms and finding ways to get paid for it.

But small cable headend owners are not going to have these same opportunities. If small cable providers have to adopt this standard it looks like nothing much more than another expensive headend upgrade for no direct benefit to them.