ETAC Report: ATSC Next Gen TV Conference 2019

by ETAC Members: Chris Lane, Vice President, Engineering, WETA 
and Bill Hayes, Director of Engineering and Technology, Iowa Public Television

Washington, D.C. hosted The ATSC Next-Gen TV Conference in May. Newly seated ATSC President Madeline Noland shared that, “This is an exciting year of progress and transition,” for next Gen-TV, where the focus moves from the theoretical discussion to the actual “nuts and bolts” of 3.0 deployment. A wide range of topics were covered, along with the next steps for continuing the transition to a next-gen transmission standard on the air across the country.

A few of our PBS station colleagues were in attendance and I asked one of them what they saw as some of the biggest takeaways from this year’s conference: Bill Hayes, Director of Engineering and Technology, an ATSC member and Vice Chair of Physical Layer S32, from Iowa Public Television shares some of his observations here.

  1. Opportunities in automobiles are even greater than I had originally thought. The market research that was presented that even in the age of online purchasing, over 80% of retail sales still occur in a physical store and that 45% of the trips made in cars are to buy something at the store was somewhat astounding. The idea of using vehicle location and proximity to specific businesses as an opportunity to target market with ATSC 3 acting as the delivery mechanism seemed intriguing. One example; a car’s fuel gage information could point a driver to the nearest Shell station.

  2. News-Press and Gazette's presentation about coverage of the fires in Southern California provided some real insight on what may be accomplished with ATSC 3. The idea of not only alerting the public but potentially providing the evacuation routes based on the location of the receiving devices makes a pretty compelling story and provides an area for development of an ATSC 3 service. Couple this with the kind of work that Fred Engel is doing in NC and the relationship that Vegas PBS has with the first responders in their area and the story for committing resources to ATSC 3 becomes a demonstrably more practical and beneficial conversion.

  3. The Magid Research presentation was interesting and it was nice to hear that all of the people that participated (as test viewers) saw features that interested them and that they were willing to pay to access the additional features that may be available. I was troubled that in the setup for the survey the users were told that ATSC 3.0 didn't require the addition of an antenna.

  4. The amazing 180° turn between last year's cable presentation which painted the picture of cable operators using transport streams for the foreseeable future and this year's presentation which was more about creating an infrastructure for ATSC 3 services being delivered to cable homes in a blended environment. The encouragement to engage with cable sooner rather than later made great sense, but also pointed to the challenge that 200 individual PBS stations need to get together and speak with a common voice or we risk being left out of the conversations and have to live with whatever deals the big groups of stations work out with the big cable operators.
  5. The industry as a whole need to get engaged with the application development industry and start educating them about the capabilities and services possible with ATSC 3.

One headline coming out of the meeting was the May 29, announcement of a Public Media Group (PMG). The PMG announced its plan to help transform the television industry with ATSC 3.0. by working with public and commercial TV broadcasters alike. PMG shared plans to roll out a nationwide network of 3.0 single frequency networks (SFNs) for reliable wireless delivery of data and mobile TV. PMG is partnering with the Public Media Venture Group’s public TV stations and Osborn Engineering, on the build out of an SFN for client broadcasters, which in turn will lease that infrastructure from PMG on a long-term basis. Much discussion around how much legal framework will be needed to make this all work in a market.

Bill Hayes suggests, “The PMG announcement missed the opportunity to really talk up the benefits of coordinated construction of transmission facilities from the business and sustainability standpoint. Most engineers understand the concept of an SFN, what seem to be missing was the encouragement to recognize that by designing community facilities, stations can create an environment where all broadcast operation benefit from sharing resources and consistent signal quality across the entire market being served.” On this note, the FCC indicated it would look at lighthouse market coverage requirements on a case-by-case basis, since not all markets can achieve the 95% coverage requirement. In some markets, the idea of a flash cut will have to become a reality. This seems to especially true if a top 40 market roll-out in the 61 markets with 71% of the population is to be realized.

Toward the end of the last day of the conference, a group that included John McCoskey, former PBS CTO and current COO of SpectraRep, and Tegna’s Senior V.P. of Strategy, Ed Busby, talked about how ATSC 3.0 will drive innovation.

Ed suggested there are four stages related to a move to Next Gen TV:

  1. The Transition to Next Gen TV, the stage we are currently in.
  2. Programing, the evolution of the content and how we use it.
  3. Hybrid and OTT, along with traditional TV and how those two will merge together.
  4. New business models; how do we make the best use of the 3.0 bandwidth, with an eye toward application.

John followed with a look at Public TV’s mission through Educational programing, civic engagement, public safety via data casting and the increased capacity of bandwidth that allows for innovation. One core strength of broadcasters has always been, the one to many broadcast models, that gives us an opportunity to provide more value as public service.

Finally, the biggest groan from the audience over the two days was the speculation that the full transition to 3.0 will take 10-15 years. For a lot of us in the audience, that may very well be for the next generation of TV engineers to consider.

Public broadcasting has always been at the forefront when it comes to deploying new technology. As 3.0 comes to market with new opportunities, including increased capacity, mobility and smart technology, PBS stations need to be in position to leverage the technology for the possibilities that have always put us at the forefront of the industry and support our mission.