An Update on ATSC 3.0

This is the year when we’ll finally start seeing the introduction of ATSC 3.0. This is the newest upgrade to broadcast television and is the first big upgrade since TV converted to all-digital over a decade ago. ATSC 3.0 is the latest standard that’s been released by the Advanced Television Systems Committee that creates the standards used by over-the-air broadcasters.

ATSC 3.0 will bring several upgrades to broadcast television that should make it more competitive with cable company video and Internet-based programming. For example, the new standard will make it possible to broadcast over-the-air in 4K quality. That’s four times more pixels than 1080i TV and rivals the best quality available from Netflix and other online content providers.

ATSC 3.0 also will support the HDR (high dynamic range) protocol that enhances picture quality by creating a better contrast between light and dark parts of a TV screen. ATSC 3.0 also adds additional sound channels to allow for state-of-the-art surround sound.

Earlier this year, Cord Cutters News reported that the new standard was to be introduced in 61 US markets by the end of 2020 – however, that has slowed a bit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the new standard should appear in most major markets by sometime in 2021. Homes will either have to buy ATSC-enabled TVs, which are just now hitting the market, or they can buy an external ATSC tuner to get the enhanced signals.

One intriguing aspect of the new standard is that a separate data path is created with TV transmissions. This opens up some interesting new features for broadcast TV. For example, a city could selectively send safety alerts and messages to homes in just certain parts of a city. This also could lead to targeted advertising that is not the same in every part of a market. Local advertisers have often hesitated to advertise on broadcast TV because of the cost and waste of advertising to an entire market instead of just the parts where they sell service.

While still in the early stages of exploration, it’s conceivable that ATSC 3.0 could be used to create a 25 Mbps data transmission path. This might require several stations joining together to create that much bandwidth. While a 25 Mbps data path is no longer a serious competitor of much faster cable broadband speeds, it opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. For example, this bandwidth could offer a competitive alternative for providing data to cellphones and could present a major challenge to cellular carriers and their stingy data caps.

ATSC 3.0 data could also be used to bring broadband into the home of every urban school student. If this broadband was paired with computers for every student, this could go a long way towards solving the homework gap in urban areas. Unfortunately, like most other new technologies, we’re not likely to see the technology in rural markets any time soon, and perhaps never. The broadband signals from tall TV towers will not carry far into rural America.

The FCC voted on June 16 on a few issues related to the ATSC 3.0 standard. In a blow to broadcasters, the FCC decided that TV stations could not use close-by vacant channels to expand ATSC 3.0 capabilities. The FCC instead decided to maintain vacant broadcast channels to be used for white space wireless broadband technology.

The FCC also took a position that isn’t going to sit as well with the public. As homeowners have continued to cut the cord there have been record sales in the last few years of indoor antennas for receiving over-the-air TV. Over-the-air broadcasters are going to be allowed to sunset the older ATSC 1.0 standard in 2023. That means that homes will have to replace TVs or will have to install an external ATSC 3.0 tuner if they want to continue to watch over-the-air broadcasts.

Are You Ready for 4K Video?

The newest worry for ISPs is the expansion of 4K video. Already today Netflix and Amazon are offering on-line 4K video to customers. Almost all of the new programming being created by both companies is being shot in 4K.

Why is this a concern for ISPs? Netflix says that in order to enjoy a streaming 4k signal that a user ought to have a spare 15 – 20 Mbps of bandwidth available if streaming with buffering. The key word is spare, meaning that any other household activity ought to be using other bandwidth. Netflix says that without buffering that a user ought to have a spare 25 Mbps.

When we start seeing a significant number of users stream video at those speeds even fiber networks might begin experiencing problems. I’ve never seen a network that doesn’t have at least a few bottlenecks, which often are not apparent until traffic volumes are high. Already today busy-hour video is causing stress to a lot of networks. I think about millions of homes trying to watch the Super Bowl in 4K and shudder to think what that will mean for most networks.

While 4K video is already on-line it is not yet being offered by cable companies. The problem for most of the industry is that there is no clear migration path between today and tomorrow’s best video signal. There are alternatives to 4K being explored by the industry that muddy the picture. Probably the most significant new technology is HDR (high-dynamic range) video. HDR has been around for a few years, but the newest version which captures video in 10-bit samples adds both contrast and color accuracy to TVs. There are other video improvements also being explored such as 10-bit HEVC (high-efficiency video coding) which is expected to replace today’s H.264 standard.

The uncertainty of the best technology migration path has stopped cable companies from making upgrades to HDR or 4K. They are rightfully afraid to invest too much in any one version of the early implementations of the technology to then face more upgrades in just a few years. But as the popularity of 4K video increases, the pressure is growing for cable companies to introduce something soon. It’s been reported that Comcast’s latest settop box is 4K capable, although the company is not making any public noise about it.

But as we’ve seen in the past, once customers start buying 4K capable TVs they are going to want to use them. It’s expected by 2020 that almost every new TV will include some version of HDR technology, which means that the quality of watching today’s 1080 pixel video streams will improve. And by then a significant number of TVs will come standard with 4K capabilities as well.

I remember back when HD television was introduced. I have one friend who is a TV buff and once he was able to get HD channels from Comcast he found that he was unable to watch anything that was broadcast in standard definition. He stopped watching any channel that did not broadcast HD and ignored a huge chunk of his Comcast line-up.

The improvements of going to 4K and/or true HDR will be equally as dramatic. The improvement in clarity and color is astonishing as long as you have a TV screen large enough to see the difference. And this means that as people grow to like 4K quality they will migrate towards 4K content.

One thing that is clear is that 4K video will force cable companies to broadcast video over the IP stream. A single 4K signal eats up an entire 6 MHz channel on a cable system making it impossible for any cable system to broadcast more than a tiny number of 4K channels in the traditional way. And, like Comcast is obviously preparing to do, it also means all new settop boxes and a slew of new electronics at the cable headend to broadcast IPTV.

Of course, like any technology improvement we’ve seen lately, the improvements in video quality don’t stop with 4K. The Japanese plan to broadcast the 2020 Olympics in 8K video. That requires four times as much bandwidth as 4K video – meaning an 80 – 100 Mbps spare IP path. I’m sure that ways will be found to compress the transmission, but it’s still going to require a larger broadband pipe than what most homes buy today. It’s expected that by 2020 that there will only be a handful of users in Japan and South Korea ready to view 8K video, but like anything dramatically new, the demand is sure to increase in the following decade.