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9 January 2020

ATSC goes soft on 3.0 expansion

ATSC seems to have come to accept that its DTT standard benefiting from an IP backbone, ATSC 3.0, is never going to conquer the world, despite the recent endorsement from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Speaking to ATSC President, Madeleine Noland, Faultline discovered ATSC has lost its drive to become a global standard. “Countries will do what’s best for them”, admitted Noland. “This often means countries continuing in the direction they’re going in, and that’s fine.”

Our interview with Noland, speaking over the phone from CES, followed the news that the ITU has adopted ATSC 3.0 as a recommended digital broadcast standard. Noland framed the ITU endorsement as a success for wider education of ATSC 3.0, rather than a catalyst for international adoption. “We simply want the standard to be internationally recognized and understood, there’s no point being evangelical about it”, said Noland.

Noland’s surprisingly passive tone struck a very different chord from ATSC’s press release, which argued that the ITU endorsement would “pave the way for countries around the world to evaluate and use the IP-based digital broadcast standard.”

ATSC whips up a frenzy every year at CES and two years ago the FCC had only just allowed over the air broadcasters to begin rolling out ATSC 3.0 updates. At the time, US broadcasters were big proponents of the technology, but essentially it is different from DVB-T now only in name, and some obscure methods relating to broadcast delivery to handheld devices, which never took off.

It added features last year such as end-to-end cloud management, targeted, data-driven ad insertion, and interactive on-screen program guides, all which came with the new broadcast standard. It’s hard to feel excitement for features that have been available via pay TV and OTT for years now, but have just become available to OTA broadcasters.

South Korea has long been the tail wagging the dog by offering first to market devices, earlier broadcasts and cheaper demodulator chips.

ATSC is the dominant broadcast technology in only Korea, Mexico and the US – elsewhere two other variants, ISDB-T created in Japan, and DVB-T2 which is dominant in Europe, while China has DTMB. These are the big broadcast standards. However, ATSC 3.0 was devised partly to migrate DVB and ATSC closer together.

To do that, it changed its physical delivery mechanism from 8VSB modulation to OFDM, so that it is more like DVB-T2 and it will support UHD video using a scalable variant of HEVC – that way TVs which cannot support 4K can have a partial delivery of the codec when using a TV adapter.

Noland followed up with some fluffy, but likely inconsequential, talk of international “collaboration between the DTT standards” when innovation comes along, giving the example that “if the Japanese were to invent a standard that supports 8K, why would ATSC want to reinvent the wheel?”

Latin America has almost universally adopted ISDB-T, the Japanese system, and US suppliers are hungry to export equipment south.

We also asked about the lack of supporting handsets to utilize ATSC 3.0’s much publicized mobile broadcast capabilities. This week’s endorsement from the ITU suggested that ATSC 3.0’s “robust mobile signals” would finally be seized upon by mobile vendors, the lack of which has been the elephant in the room for some time. Is there a mobile handset breakthrough on the horizon? It’s not even on the radar.

When it came to the lack of handsets with 3.0 receivers, Noland simply stated that “our job was to make a standard that was capable of mobile broadcasts, it’s up to the market to take it.” With ATSC leaving the ball in the vendor’s court, we won’t be holding our breath.

Instead Noland was keen to remind us that ATSC 3.0’s mobile broadcast capabilities were being capitalized upon by the automotive industry. Oh, that would be the automotive industry that has installed non-standard satellite radio in every US car (around 80 million) and used its signal to deliver video as well. ATSC’s Planning Team 5 has been set up to deliver 3.0 to the automotive industry, with various development’s in the past year such as collaborations with AVIS vehicles in ATSC’s test city of Phoenix, Arizona.

ATSC has used this year’s CES to announce 20 TV models with ATSC 3.0 receivers for the coming year, including models such as Samsung’s 8K QLED TVs. We pressed Noland on when we can expect the first commercial launches. Samsung has said Spring 2020, LG has committed to ‘mid-year’ 2020, while Sony was tight-lipped on the matter.

As we have said before, the development and roll out of ATSC 3.0 has been painfully slow. With trials first starting over 4 years ago, it feels like even 5G has rolled out faster. Who did Noland think was responsible? Regulators? Broadcasters? Were delays purely technical?

Noland dubbed this to be “a classic chicken and egg situation” but said that broadcasters had to be committed to the standard before vendors could manufacture devices. She argued that this will become more appealing “as broadcasters come to see themselves as content producers as well as distributors.”

Yet this doesn’t seem to be happening at the speed ATSC needs in order to stay relevant. ATSC 3.0 risks missing the boat as an increasing number of consumers in the US move exclusively to OTT services, leaving the standard with a shrinking pool of viewers. Free to air TV cannot claim to be installed in more than 20 million homes anyway, and an increasing proportion of these are pure OTT.

On this matter, Noland seemed unphased, noting that “the number of US antenna users are growing.” Furthermore, Noland had faith that broadcasters in the US were confident in ATSC 3.0. “In order to compete with OTT, broadcasters need a standard that can evolve quickly. Broadcasters like the flexibility that comes with 3.0”, said Noland.

ATSC 3.0 is the first DTT standard to be properly aligned with IP, which makes integration with OTT services based on cellular or terrestrial networks much easier to achieve, as well as enabling richer multimedia services incorporating data, text and graphics. Unlike previous ATSC standards, ATSC 3.0 can broadcast in 4K. The standard is made up of a ‘layered architecture.’

ATSC 3.0 has moved along the road to adoption at a snail’s pace. It has been a long road to ATSC 3.0 spanning 10 years and only coming to an end in the US after the FCC finally agreed in February 2019 to start accepting license applications from broadcasters.

ATSC has now confirmed that the ITU will update its Digital Handbook to advise for the best means of implementation of the standard.