Vendors align for last gasp ATSC 3.0 push as NAB looms

Within minutes of each other, encoding rivals Ateme and Harmonic announced new ATSC 3.0 partnerships this week in the run up to NAB. The broadcast standard has promised to revolutionize over the air (OTA) television but still there remains a distinct lack of ATSC 3.0-capable consumer devices – and industry players will be hoping next month’s Las Vegas show floor doesn’t mirror the sorry sights for ATSC 3.0 witnessed at CES back in January.

To US firm Harmonic first, which is aiming to accelerate ATSC 3.0 adoption by signing up for the Phoenix Model Market Initiative, a collaborative effort headed up by broadcast partnership group Pearl TV, plus TV station affiliates of Scripps, Fox Television Stations, Meredith, Nexstar, Tegna, Telemundo and Univision.

Significantly for the project, the Phoenix Model Market has also attracted the signatures of broadcast equipment makers Dielectric, Enensys and GatesAir, plus another encoding firm Triveni Digital, this week – collaborating to pave the way for full OTA ATSC 3.0 deployments.

Rushing ATSC 3.0 to market could be detrimental to consumers by triggering price hikes, so the emergence of open test beds is a positive sign for the broadcast technology, while also signaling the vendors might be growing twitchy.

The first demonstration transitioning an existing broadcast station to ATSC 3.0 was promised by Pearl TV for the first quarter of 2018 – a window which is closing fast. Pearl TV could not detail why the initial demo has been delayed, nor answer our queries on which TV makers or other consumer electronics manufacturers are involved, but the company provided us with the following statement: “Just before the FCC approved the use of ATSC 3.0 for next-generation television service, Pearl announced plans to bring together broadcasters and equipment manufacturers to create a model market in the city of Phoenix. Since that announcement, we’ve been working diligently to light up our first ATSC 3.0 broadcast, which will happen very soon. We’ve lined up a roster of top-drawer equipment companies – both on the transmission and receiving side – to get things moving. We’re on track and expect to be transmitting soon.”

The initiative hopes to have services up and running in the market by mid-spring this year.

TV stations in Phoenix will get to test out Harmonic’s Electra X ATSC 3.0 media processor, integrating encoding, statistical multiplexing and DASH packaging technologies. It supports HDR and Harmonic highlights an important task the Electra X can handle, which is decorating ATSC 3.0 channels to ensure they are suitable for targeted ad insertion.

ATSC 3.0 aims to provide broadcasters with a stepping stone towards multiscreen OTT video, by combining broadcast technology and standards with IP delivery, involving thorough tests of basic and next generation TV parameters.

The Phoenix Model Market claims to be the first collaborative single-market effort for transitioning to next-generation OTA TV broadcasting, although there is a similar effort happening in Cleveland. Pearl TV claims the Phoenix focus is more on the development of services to consumers and the project also expects to validate the underlying technologies specified in ATSC 3.0.

Dielectric is bringing its UT8D7F-3K filter to the Phoenix Model Market project, a 3 kW low loss, high-efficiency, 8-Pole, UHF bandpass filter designed for any critical mask application covering ATSC 3.0, ISDB-T, DVB-T and DVB-T2. Enensys is supplying its ATSCheduler broadcast gateway encapsulating any IP streams into an ATSC multiplex, and GatesAir is providing its Maxiva UAXTE-3 UHF air-cooled TV transmitter to power the first Phoenix ATSC 3.0 broadcasts.

A final name worth noting on the Phoenix Model Market membership list is Triveni Digital, which will provide Pearl TV with its GuideBuilderXM signaling and announcement generator and StreamScope XM MT monitoring and analysis systems, both of which support ATSC 3.0.

The next challenge for ATSC 3.0 is getting these types of initiatives up and running country-wide, particularly if they are serious about testing compatibility of ATSC 3.0 signals with cable infrastructure.

On one hand, a market-driven transition with voluntary adopters of ATSC 3.0 is preferable, rather than a hasty roll out of technologies ushered in by the FCC, while the other view is that a hurried approach is essential otherwise the standard will be rendered useless if it arrives at a time when all TV is being sent over the internet anyway.

Moving on to French firm Ateme now, which – rather than joining hands with other ATSC 3.0 hopefuls – has bagged a live encoding deployment deal at US broadcaster Sinclair Broadcast Group with the aim of speeding up the roll out of OTA ATSC 3.0 TV services.

As with rival Harmonic, Ateme’s Sinclair deal is part and parcel of an ATSC 3.0 consortium led by Sinclair and Nexstar Media called Spectrum Co, which has been conducting trials across Dallas.

Sinclair has selected Ateme to supply encoding for ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0, using statistical multiplexing enabled variable bitrate encoding across both transmission platforms. Ateme claims its flagship Titan compression software encoder-transcoder provides a “blink-of-an-eye” migration path to ATSC 3.0, HEVC or Scalable HEVC. Faultline Online Reporter has requested a more specific time frame.

The Sinclair deal builds on Ateme’s public demonstrations of ATSC 3.0 with NBC affiliate station WRAL-TV last month, testing the Titan compression software in combination with other broadcasting and technology partners to broadcast 4K UHD content using Layer Division Multiplexing technology to showcase new interactive applications.

Some five years in the making, the FCC approved the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard in November, however, the rush to roll out ATSC 3.0 has been criticized, with the Coalition to Save Local Media saying it “could force consumers to purchase new equipment to receive broadcast programming and raise consumer costs.”

The group is right to be concerned. Using the situation in Europe as an example, TV manufacturers have been incensed by the excessive royalty rates by adding broadcasting patents and have claimed the ATSC license fee is between 150% and 200% higher than comparable technology licenses in Europe (DVB).

This concerns a recent case of Haier America Trading accusing TV manufacturers Samsung Electronics, Panasonic, Philips, LG Electronics and LG’s US arm Zenith Electronics, plus the Columbia University Trust Committee and patent pool licensing group MPEG-LA, of patent misuse. However, the case relates only to the first generation of the technology, not ATSC 3.0 – but it does raise concerns that allegations of monopolizing patent royalties might transfer over to the new technology.

Neither announcement this week mentioned mobile, which is interesting considering the ATSC has talked up Robust Mobile Reception as a new feature of 3.0. Broadcasters are pinning their hopes on mobile in order to remain relevant, but with just a handful of ATSC 3.0 capable TV chipsets on the market today, the dream of getting supporting receiver modules in handsets looks a long way off.