Then, perhaps as early as 2017, terrestrial TV broadcasters could offer scheduled and on-demand content, in nearly any format (SD, HD, 4K, and perhaps eventually 8K), to nearly any device stationary or mobile, with enhanced audio, and with ad insertion where appropriate.
Importantly, ATSC 3.0 enables a hybrid marriage of terrestrial broadcast with broadband connectivity, which will give broadcasters tremendous flexibility to create new services. The most popular content can be broadcast over the air, for example, while options such as alternate languages could be made available through a broadband connection.
Each broadcaster would have the flexibility to choose the business model that works the best for it. Broadcasters could choose to offer higher-resolution video, or high dynamic range (HDR) video, or better audio, or on-demand content.
ATSC 3.0 promises to put broadcasters on a more even footing with MSOs, IPTV companies, satellite TV providers and cellular carriers.
The timing of commercial services based on ATSC 3.0 would be dependent on a whole lot of other things coming together at the same time, however. ATSC 3.0 will be based on an entirely new modulation scheme, requiring new tuners. That means consumer electronics companies will have to introduce a new category of TVs, and probably gateways or some other device that would serve a transition-easing function similar to the DTAs that were distributed in preparation for the digitalization of broadcast TV in 2009.
Yet even with commercialization at least two years off, the mere existence of ATSC 3.0 is creating repercussions affecting the TV ecosystem. Most notably, it is working to undermine the FCC's proposed 600MHz incentive auction.
The major US wireless carriers claim they are running out of spectrum. They've pointed to the small and slimming minority of viewers getting their TV over the air, and argue broadcast TV spectrum is being under-utilized and so should be reallocated for their use. This spectrum is especially valuable because the signals are particularly robust, easily able to penetrate walls and other barriers. In response to carrier desires, the FCC has devised the incentive auction.
Broadcasters have been cool to the idea, though. The proposal always seemed to them like the radio equivalent of a land grab. But with the promise of a new version of the ATSC broadcast standard, broadcasters have a legitimate expectation that they'll be able to use their spectrum far more flexibly and become more competitive in doing so. If they are under-using their spectrum, they won't be for much longer.
What's now being called ATSC 1.0 was introduced in 1995. The replacement was supposed to be ATSC 2.0, which would have kept using many of the same enabling technologies, providing some new capabilities while remaining backward compatible.
But since ATSC 3.0 was proposed in 2013, it has caught fire among broadcasters. ATSC 2.0 has now been pretty much supplanted by ATSC 3.0.
ATSC 3.0 proposes to migrate broadcast transport from MPEG to IP, using the ISOBMFF (ISO Base Media File Format). The broadcast modulation will switch from 8VSB to the more spectrally efficient OFDM. MPEG video encoding will be dropped in favor of HEVC. The standard adopts LDPC (low density parity check) for forward error correction. The developers of the standard have also moved to the use of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) for synchronization and buffer management.
(The cable industry is also adopting OFDM and LDPC in its DOCSIS 3.1 standard.)
Rich Chernock is chief science officer of T&M specialist Triveni Digital Inc. and chair of the ATSC Technology Group on Distribution. Chernock told Light Reading that another key technology implemented in the ATSC 3.0 physical layer is the ability to wake up sleeping devices.
Broadcast TV has always been one of the most effective means of distributing emergency information, Chernock noted. With ATSC 3.0, broadcasters will be able to push emergency information, even to devices that are in sleep mode. Furthermore, in addition to text and audio, more include more complex data, for example evacuation maps, can be pushed.
"This is very robust. It is almost receivable in a tunnel underground," Chernock said.
That the physical layer of the ATSC 3.0 spec is now a candidate standard means that anyone can start implementing it to see how it works. The process will act as a sort of test period to make sure that the technology does what it's supposed to do.
Test is, not by the way, where Triveni earns its bread and butter. "It's a new system, new transport, and new places to screw it all up," Chernock said, "So there's need for test and measurement equipment to figure out whether your broadcast transmission is correct."
— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading