Hybrid demos show ATSC 3.0 may not be Dead on Arrival but on death row

We are in the season of hybrid demonstrations for the newly minted ATSC 3.0 DTT standards in the US with Sinclair Broadcast as a patent holder taking a front seat. The latest has come from South Korean telco SK Telecom demonstrating two-way media services in conjunction with Sinclair and also Samsung’s US automotive components subsidiary Harman International Industries.

As the makeup of this partnership suggests, the focus is on delivery of interactive infotainment to connected cars, with SK showing how various adverts could be played on in-car screens while the vehicle was running. It is also evaluating SK’s multi-view service, which allows viewing from multiple camera angles simultaneously, with sports in mind.

The objective was to show off the ability of ATSC 3.0 to deliver interactive services and enable new cases and better experiences than were possible with its North American predecessor or even the current alternative DTT standards elsewhere in the world. The latter includes DVB-T2 prevailing in Europe or Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting (ISDB) in Japan, the Philippines and parts of South America. But the actual affect was to illuminate just how much ATSC 3.0 will depend on 5G, or cellular in general, to enable interactive services such as advanced advertising and multiview.

It is true 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. But this does not bring interactivity even to the degree that satellite services allow with limited scope for symmetric two-way services at lower speed upstream communications for people in remote areas beyond reach of fixed or mobile broadband.

In this SK demo, the advertising relied on the 5G connectivity to identify users and obtain the data needed to glean preferences and consumer behavior to target effectively. Then for the multiview, the ATSC 3.0 network transmits just video shot by the main camera as usual, relying on the 5G network to stream all the live feeds from other cameras for the alternative views.

Advocates will point out that ATSC 3.0 gives US TV stations the ability to serve users with apps written in HTML5 that will run inside a browser on their smart TV if they have one, or else set tops if equipped for that. This could enable some degree of ad targeting by sending several ads down to a set top or TV, rather like Sky’s Ad Smart in Europe. But this only allows targeting at a household level and is somewhat limited in scope. Similarly, it could provide fast links to news clips, weather and local content generally, as well as access to a catch-up service, but again restricted compared with an OTT service.

In fact, the ATSC Committee does not appear to have made clear how advertisements should work over ATSC 3.0 without an internet connection. It has identified though what it considers some of the novel use cases for ATSC 3.0, which include enhanced video and audio delivery including higher frame rates and more consistent signal quality. It also includes staggered delivery for live events by device type, more advanced emergency alerts and of course targeted advertising via that app delivery capability.

The problem is all these capabilities will be deliverable via overlay models being developed for 5G, notably the High Power High Tower (HPHT) model, which essentially bolts DTT onto cellular. As we know well, attempts to bring on mobile broadcast or multicast have failed in the past, with even LTE Broadcast not gaining much traction, but there is greater momentum building this time. This is partly because the latest cellular broadcasting mode FeMBMS (Further evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service). The FeMBMS broadcast mode combines well with HPHT to deliver popular content cost effectively across larger coverage areas than any predecessor allowed, up to 60 Kms.

This is currently being demonstrated in the one of biggest field trials so far for 5G Broadcasting, the 5G Today project between Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation (Bayerischer Rundfunk, BR), the Broadcast Technology Institute IRT, Kathrein, Rohde & Schwarz and Telefónica in Germany. This has been earmarked as the foundation for efficient transmission of broadcasting content in the 5G networks of the future via this overlay infrastructure.

The key aim of the project is to show that video content can be broadcast as efficiently and directly as over DTT without incurring additional costs for broadcasters or users, while enjoying the same low latency and range. Another critical point here is that Telefónica Germany is making the relevant frequencies in the 700 MHz band available for the trial, which was the preserve of DTT in the past.

Meanwhile there is evidence that broadcasters are changing their tune over the debate between DTT and 5G overlay. Until recently the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) was still arguing that DTT would be far more cost effective for broadcasting and that spectrum should be preserved for it until at least 2030, but now it is accepting that 5G will take over and that its members must do what they can do to ensure that it evolves in an optimal way for their services.

The EBU published a recent study comparing two alternative scenarios, one where DTT is phased out totally in favor of 5G by 2030 and the other where orchestration of heterogeneous networks is enabled by 5G. Naturally it prefers the latter but even that is an admission that 5G will come out on top. The study concludes that broadcasters should engage more strongly with the 5G ecosystem, as well as with operators, vendors and CE makers, to ensure that traditional broadcast platforms are considered and included in the network orchestration around 5G. This seems to be conceding more ground to 5G than the ATSC committee is willing to give up yet, but then ATSC 3.0 has yet to be deployed in anger. While those who reckoned ATSC 3.0 was too little too late, or DoA (Dead on Arrival) may be too pessimistic, we do not see it making the lasting impact its advocates hoped and will ultimately be subsumed by 5G. It may be more like a long death row.