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10 November 2020

Finally, ATSC 3.0 broadcast comes to US smartphones

It’s happening. The moment the US broadcast industry has been waiting years for – smartphones installed with ATSC 3.0 receivers.

Before we get too carried away, these are so-called ‘evaluation units’ – in other words a small step up from the prototypes delivered by Sinclair Broadcast’s One Media 3.0 subsidiary around three weeks ago. Getting these devices to retail could therefore still be years away, if the infamous ATSC 3.0 turnaround is anything to go by, after initial testing of a few hundred handsets taking place either in November or December, according to One Media.

Called the Mark One, there is a strong Indian influence in the debut Android-based ATSC 3.0-capable smartphone. OEM Borqs manufactured the devices, while Saankhya Labs supplied the software-defined radio chipset. Embedding an ATSC 3.0 antenna in the handset was, we understand, a difficult and expensive technical task, which is probably why the project was contracted to a hardware manufacturer that will be familiar to very few US consumers.

Despite the ATSC 3.0 antenna, the bill of materials and therefore retail price of the handset should be kept pretty cheap, to encourage widespread uptake when it finally launches. Estimates are floating around the surprisingly low $150 mark if the Mark One goes into mass production, which would be a tantalizing price point, providing that these forthcoming tests don’t run into any alarming problems. But to push the Mark One’s price anywhere below $200, we are talking hundreds of thousands of devices, perhaps even millions, while producing tens of thousands of handsets would price it at around $300.

The Mark One has arrived nearly two whole years after One Media first revealed silicon designed to accelerate the adoption of ATSC 3.0 across markets with direct-to-mobile TV capabilities and broadcast/broadband convergence systems. This created a real buzz in the industry, but things soon fizzled out. A year later, in early 2020, progress was once again thwarted as supply chains were hit by pandemic lockdowns.

Given the unpredictable nature of events, One Media 3.0 hasn’t dared put a timeframe on when it expects the Mark One to arrive on shelves, although we would be greatly disappointed not see ATSC 3.0 handsets on the market by this time next year.

Targeted and interactive advertising, 4K, HDR, and other advanced features are the headline grabbers for the hybrid IP-broadcast standard, which goes under the more consumer-friendly moniker of NextGen TV, while emerging alerting capabilities are being fronted as integral to the Mark One smartphone.

Mark Aitken, One Media 3.0 president as well as SVP of advanced technology at Sinclair, described this mobile emergency alerting feature on mobile as “a good political lever” in respect to getting ATSC 3.0 chips accepted in handsets. His comments suggest that the Borqs-built Mark One handset is effectively a reference point, before building onto bigger things with more established smartphone companies.

It will take a lot more than emerging alerting combined with a broadcast mode for IP video to convince major handset manufacturers to embed ATSC 3.0 technology into their latest devices, particularly as these handsets appear to be leaning towards the low-end of the market. After all, it was only less than three years ago that people had far-fetched dreams of having ATSC 3.0 antennas embedded in the latest iPhones.

That said, One Media is currently in talks with two unnamed MVNOs in the US, according to Aitken, about offering ATSC 3.0-capable smartphones, as well as two large internet firms. Opportunities for these anonymous organizations could arise from bundling ATSC 3.0-based subscription services into mobile packages, standing out from the mobile competition.

Undercutting the latest 5G-capable handsets on the market will be crucial, while One Media 3.0 also believes it can use 5G to its advantage by deploying small transmitters alongside 5G infrastructure to essentially fill in the gaps. This would be another technical leap, requiring changing the very topology of the broadcast network.

Convergence is also being driven from the 5G side by support for non-3GPP access technologies, which can then be used over the same infrastructure for multiple services.

This takes convergence up to the application or service level, so that for example the interactive 5G network can deliver personalized or targeted content to users over a hybrid offering also delivering broadcast channels over the ATSC 3.0 network.

Such an offering has already been demonstrated in the US by SK Telecom, Sinclair Broadcast Group and automotive parts firm Harman International, to deliver TV to in-car infotainment systems. This operates over a Sinclair ATSC 3.0-based TV broadcast network combined with SK Telecom’s 5G network to deliver UHD video and audio, with advertising targeted to individuals identified over the 5G network, as well as broadcast of advanced emergency alerting.

In turn, this convergence is stimulating developments of offloading packages that combine 5G, ATSC 3.0 and the eMBMS model. Back in July 2019, One Media inked a deal with Saankhya Labs to speed up the development of wireless networks for offloading OTT and live video traffic. Saankhya Labs’ platform uses radio nodes co-located with existing cell towers and end user devices to allows MNOs to dynamically shift video traffic from unicast one-to-one services onto one-to-many DTT networks – using a mix of 5G and ATSC 3.0 technologies.

There was much talk of employing machine learning algorithms to support automatic provisioning of the offload process, but there were also application level benefits through being able to localize content and start employing targeted advertising by combining the broadcast transmission with unicast interactivity for users.

Increasingly, convergence with 5G looks like ATSC 3.0’s best hope of proliferating the mobile market, although pushing out a handset priced as low as $150 would give it a good chance of cornering a share of the low-end smartphone market.