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28 April 2022

ATSC 3.0 subdued at NAB, device shipments must ramp sharpish

Two things seemed surprisingly subdued at NAB this year. It was nice to not be bombarded by the metaverse, in whatever nascent stage it might have been, but the ATSC 3.0 media blitz that we had suspected was in place did not materialize. Still, the show will have been packed with meetings, to try and promote the NextGen TV offering to new markets.

In the run up to NAB, the ATSC organization put out a teaser announcement, updating the world on its progress. The headline claim is that the NextGen TV coverage in the US has hit 50% population coverage – now available in almost 60 markets. Some 120 receivers (set tops and USB-based dongles) have been designed, and the ATSC reckons 4.5 million compatible devices will be sold in 2022.

Some rudimentary modeling suggests that TVs have an average lifecycle of around seven years, as they are shuffled through the house until they die or become intolerable. At the 4.5 million sets per year rate, this suggests an installed base of around 31.5 million units in seven years, which is not great. So, ATSC 3.0 sales need to increase their share of total TV sales, and it is rather unclear if consumers are going to pull this market forward, or simply ignore the OEM attempts to push ATSC 3.0 onto them.

Serious consumer polling in the US might give us a good idea of the expected penetration rate of ATSC 3.0 in TV shipments, but the ATSC is going to be majorly disappointed if that 10% rate is not sharply improved. The ATSC also points to Brazil and Jamaica as encouraging new markets, and while Brazil is easily comparable to the US, Jamaica is definitely a minnow.

Nonetheless, the network infrastructure is being rolled out, although there is no public completion date for 100% coverage. Depending on your politics, BitPath’s announcement that it was launching a service that will attempt to piggyback on this infrastructure. In the ATSC’s roadmap progress report, this falls under the Datacasting remit.

This is, of course, an Internet of Things (IoT) play, but it should highlight to infrastructure owners that their networks can be used for additional monetization opportunities. For BitPath, this entails a Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) service offering, which essentially uses the ATSC 3.0 network to determine where a connected device is, in both space and time.

BitPath points to PNT being a market growing by 22% annually, and as ATSC 3.0 is a broadcast data network, it should have a lot of bandwidth for other such initiatives. Rethink has seen all manner of impressive demonstrations for positioning offerings for IoT devices, over the years, and being able to manipulate the ATSC 3.0 broadcast architecture should be a win-win for the network owners and companies like BitPath that can leverage the deployment.

And speaking of additional functions, Evoca TV demonstrated an industry-first, in the run up to NAB, which saw the Idaho-based broadcaster transmit the first content to use the cross-polarization functions of ATSC 3.0 in the USA. This is MIMO, a staple of LTE for many years, which is now being used to increase the carrying capacity of the ATSC 3.0 spectrum.

Evoca TV’s CEO, Todd Achilles, said that “MIMO has the potential to dramatically increase the available payload for TV broadcasts, possibly even doubling the amount of data that a broadcaster can sent to improve choice and robustness. That could mean many more standard and high-definition channels for viewers, the potential of more than one UHD 4K service, or even the possibility of 8K video delivered over-the-air.”

For some context, MIMO is thoroughly old-hat in the cellular world, and 8K streams are not exactly unheard of in OTT. NHK made waves by transmitting the Tokyo Olympics in 8K, and while you can fall into the trap of arguing bitrate alone, it should be noted that the enthusiasm seen from the ATSC 3.0 camp is somewhat indicative of how behind the times the technology is. Still, it has a lot of promise, but it should be properly compared with rival approaches.

Rohde & Schwarz transmitters were used, with software and services from Multicast-ABR specialist Enensys. Broadcast arrays from Kathrein Broadcast, signal analysis kit from Avateq Corporation, and receiving antennae from Televes, to complete the demonstration from Evoca TV. MIMO tests have already been carried out in Brazil, South Korea, and the UK.

Faultline’s final encounter with ATSC 3.0 took place at the Sinclair Broadcasting press event, which was painfully dull. However, Sinclair’s President, Chris Ripley, began waving around a smartphone from Saankhya Labs, claiming that it was the first ATSC 3.0 compatible device from the Indian startup – a company that has been on our radar for rather a long time, but which has underwhelmed. Sinclair and Saankhya have been development partners for some time now, via Sinclair’s One Media wing.

Ripley banged on about how Sinclair had put so much effort into its Broadcast App that it had decided it to open source it – for the industry’s benefit. There is currently an active trial in Bangalore, it seems, and so a trial in the US shortly seems probable. Sinclair, the largest promoter of ATSC 3.0 in the US, is hoping to create a common baseline, which its partners can rally behind.

In the run up to NAB, Sinclair announced that five Omaha TV stations had begun transmitting using ATSC 3.0, and that it would be adding SL-HDR1 to its Bally Sports family of Regional Sports Networks (RSNs) in Q3 – a win for the Technicolor HDR protocol, which is having something of a Lazarus moment, as it looked rather dead only a year ago. Faultline examined its Hisense TV win back in February.

Returning swiftly to Saankhya Labs, as part of our digging into the smartphone claim, it appears that Tejas Networks has acquired the firm. At the very end of March, a deal was struck that saw Tejas Networks take a 64.4% stake, for $37 million (INR 2.8 billion). Tejas Networks is part of the Tata Group, which plans to acquire the rest of the firm eventually – either through direct merger or a secondary purchase.

Saankhya was founded in 2007, and developed its own software-defined radio (SDR) silicon – amassing a portfolio of some 73 patents. Tata plans to integrate Saankhya into its 4G and 5G RAN offerings, as well as tackle O-RAN and 5G broadcast opportunities. Our deeply cynical reading is that ATSC 3.0 will take a backseat, as Tata pursues more lucrative avenues, but without sneaking into the meetings, our suspicions cannot be confirmed. Of course, Tata might want to corner the ATSC 3.0 market entirely, and certainly boasts the scale to do so.