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25 April 2023

TV’s broadcast infrastructure makes bid for data distribution role

The Las Vegas convention center played host to NAB, the titular trade show of the National Association of Broadcasters, last week. With the latest in television technology on display, a notable development over the past year has been the attempts by TV infrastructure networks to expand into providing data connectivity services.

The ATSC 3.0 standard, with its consumer-facing NextGen TV brand, has been the driver of this new interest. Oft-delayed, ATSC 3.0 is now gaining some momentum in the market, but skepticism remains regarding its ability to catch-on. Still, the satellite and cable pay TV options are on the wane, and a model based on terrestrial antenna broadcasts can make some significant environmental claims about its efficiency.

The US is investing billions of government dollars into its broadband capacity, yet there are still concerns about available bandwidth. In Europe, the topic of ‘fair contribution’ has reared its head, targeting the video services that ISPs claim are unfairly congesting their networks.

Here, the ISPs are being disingenuous, in asking for compensation before exhausting technological fixes to their immediate problems, and the approach feels like it will land rash decisionmakers in hot water. MWC saw executives from major MNOs make such calls on stage, at the same show at which they made claims about being technological leaders.

Squaring that circle is problematic, especially as the burden of video has been known for a decade. Flailing and pointing the finger at Netflix makes the MNO appear poorly run and underprepared.

To this end, perhaps the most significant announcement at NAB was Sinclair’s announcement that it would construct an open data distribution network, to enable broadcasters, and presumably pay TV operators, to more efficiently deliver data. This was pitched as being a supplementary IP distribution mechanism, in support of both fixed and wireless options – using the terrestrial broadcast infrastructure.

Broadcasting data to end-users, via this one-to-many approach, could be much more energy and bandwidth efficient than the one-to-one approach of IP unicast. Of course, CDNs have become very well versed at offloading unicast traffic to WebRTC where possible, and other forms of peer-based caching, and so it is not fair to say that all such deliveries are one-to-one from the source.

Still, this broadcast ability has always been one of the mainstay features of ATSC 3.0, and it would be a coup if the OTT providers would be able to leverage this Sinclair network, to more efficiently deliver content. Of course, this would require the end-users to have compatible equipment, and likely enough on-device storage to cache applicable content as it is beamed into the home, but from a technical perspective, the world is your oyster.

However, the business questions are always the hindrance here. For the likes of Sinclair, data delivery looks like a clear new monetization opportunity. The issue is convincing potential customers that the ecosystem is viable, and until ATSC 3.0 compatible TVs (either via integrated functionality or via an antenna or peripheral device) are commonplace, convincing them to sign on the dotted line will be hard for Sinclair.

Other target areas for this network include emergency alert systems for government departments, and connected car applications via automakers. Given the backdrop of environmental concerns, the ecosystem could make a lot of hay, by taking shots at the current approaches.

ATSC 3.0’s footprint in the US is expanding (see the inset image), and BitPath has announced that its ATSC 3.0 network has now entered its 50th market, bringing its population coverage to some 150 million Americans.

BitPath, a joint venture between Sinclair and Nexstar Media Group, notably, has an Internet of Things (IoT) play that differentiates it somewhat from other ATSC 3.0 network providers, but there appeared to be no direct mention of this at NAB 2023.

BitPath COO Sasha Javid said “with the BitPath network reaching almost half the country, we’re preparing to bring the power of data broadcasting to Americans in cities from coast to coast. True to our focus on the fastest growing data applications, we’ve shown that ATSC 3.0 can be the wireless backbone for efficient distribution of updates to machine learning models operating on thousands of embedded devices in a market.”

For MNOs, the arrival of networks like Sinclair and BitPath should be of some concern. If these networks are able to offload traffic from the fixed and wireless broadband networks, then there will be some impact on the demand for both. Consumers that see significant volumes of data shift from an MNO data cap to this sort of network are a demographic that will be a churn risk for a low-cost rival, or a segment that cannot be upsold.