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1 September 2022

Behavioral factors as much to blame for ATSC 3.0 delays as technological

Excluding all lockdown-related and external supply chain slowdowns, Faultline has been a vocal critic of delays to ATSC 3.0 deployments across the US – frustration borne from integral industry executives brushing missed timeframe commitments under the carpet.

A prime example is Anne Schelle, MD of US broadcast partnership group Pearl TV, whom Faultline interviewed with little joy in early 2018. Others, like the ATSC’s Skip Pizzi, who is currently Chair of the IT-5 Brazil Implementation Team for SBTVD 3.0, is happy to address such qualms.

The latest being that the FCC appears to have run out of patience, as it seeks answers as to why US broadcasters are currently licensed to provide ATSC 3.0 services in 54 markets, as of mid-2022, when the target was 61 markets by the end of 2020.

Speaking during a Faultline webinar on ATSC 3.0 and SBTVD 3.0 technologies this week, Pizzi returned fire at the FCC, describing the US regulator as the “real problem” behind slower than expected roll-outs (and consumer uptake) of the hybrid broadcast-broadband standard known as NextGen TV.

The reason being that ATSC 3.0 is fundamentally unlike previous terrestrial TV transitions, like the analog to digital switchover, which was a mandatory transition enforced by the FCC, one with a proper schedule and new spectrum allocation. ATSC 3.0 is quite the opposite, as a completely voluntary transition with no new spectrum allocation.

While it seemed a gargantuan step at the time, the analog to digital switchover was a piece of cake in comparison to the transition to ATSC 3.0 services. When switching from analog TV, broadcasters in the US were given new digital TV channels which many ran for the best part of a decade in parallel with existing analog channels, before finally shutting off the analog taps and keeping digital channels running.

The FCC then took away the excess spectrum and auctioned this off to the wireless industry, with broadcasters losing swathes of spectrum first in the 700 MHz band and then 600 MHz nearly a decade later in 2017.

With TV spectrum being packed tighter and tighter, there is no new spectrum to allow a convenient switchover to ATSC 3.0 with simulcasting of channels, without going through “heroic efforts on our own as broadcasters,” according to Pizzi.

“That’s what’s taken so long,” he bemoaned.

And because broadcasters in the US are used to owning their own transmission systems (not counting shared towers and combiners), unlike in Europe where shared transmissions are common, which meant the US had to come up with a “crazy quilt method” of sharing channel spectrum in the market, as Pizzi puts it.

Say five broadcasters got together, for example. One broadcaster switches to ATSC 3.0 and carries all the other broadcaster signals on ATSC 3.0 as it’s much more efficient using HEVC instead of MPEG-2 video. This would bring about 5x efficiency improvement over ATSC 1.0 (as the original DTV system is retrospectively referred), according to Pizzi.

“That is easy to do,” he continues. However, things are complicated as the ATSC 1.0 signals of that channel that turned itself to a 3.0 service are somehow spread across the other four remaining 1.0 signals in the market, carried by the other four broadcasters. Because of multicasting used in the US market, this hypothetical (but real) scenario required changes in FCC rules to allow the kind of channel sharing to take place that we’re talking about here.

As a result, it takes a laborious process of negotiation with the FCC which the US broadcasters aren’t used to doing. “It’s a behavioral as well as a technological shift – and that’s really what’s behind the delays,” concludes Pizzi.