For many, Telecommunications improvements are relegated to two areas: how fast your wifi speed is, and whether your phone is 5G capable.
But while the general public has been focused on streaming the latest season of Tiger King, broadcast technology has been quietly amassing its forces, refining its tech, and innovating in ways that are stunning the industry.
What was once simply the ONLY way to get television, may soon re-emerge as the BEST way, to not only receive programming, but much more.
Welcome to ATSC 3.0, otherwise known as NextgenTV.
First off, what is ATSC?
A quick recap for the uninitiated.
Short for Advanced Television Systems Committee, ATSC is the definitive updated protocol from what came before (you remember NTSC, don’t you?)
But ATSC 1.0 has been around for over 10 years in major markets, bringing high-def 720p and 1080i signals into homes across North America and the world.
Where it really gets interesting is ATSC 3.0.
On first view, it appears to be an expected incremental increase in quality, with abilities to broadcast up to 4K, and eventually 8K, from traditional towers.
But when we had the opportunity to sit down with Madeleine Noland, the President of ATSC (and holder of three patents for television technology), and Orest Sushko, Director of the Broadcast-Broadband Convergence B2C Lab at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto, we quickly learned that the technological implications, and the benefits to communities across the world, were greater than we might have imagined. We also received a unique take on Canada’s role in the future of ATSC 3.0.
What are some of the Key ATSC 3.0 Features?
As Orest and Madeleine walked us through some important points, we began to understand that ATSC 3.0 goes far beyond Ultra HD TV programming.
For sure, the tech can guarantee a clean 4k feed to every single user of the service. Being broadcast, there is absolutely no difference between the quality a user in a city experiences when compared to a user in a rural area.
If there’s a tower that reaches your TV, you get full quality, period. In the United States that means up to 98% of the population that can be reached.
In Canada, that coverage percentage is a bit lower, due to population density differences across the Canadian landscape.
When it comes to audio quality, ATSC 3.0 uses the newer Dolby AC-4, for broadcasts of up to 7.1.4 channel audio and support for object-based sound formats like Dolby Atmos. It’s also smart; it can adapt to your gear. So, if your TV can support 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos, and it’s available on the movie you’re watching, that’s what you’ll get — but lesser components still get a version they can reproduce, too.
But it’s in the applications beyond TV where it gets really interesting.
Sending data packets remains one of our most present challenges in contemporary society, and ATSC 3.0 is built from the ground up to be able to handle this, not only for improved programming and (as we’ll show below) all the ancillary data that can accompany it, but for the transfer of files to end users.
The Distribution Revolution
COVID-19 changed the way a lot of students worldwide learned. Along with the breakneck speed schools had to adapt to in-home learning, came the need for schools to deliver orders of magnitude more materials than they ever had to.
Home bandwidths were stretched to the breaking point as multiple kids, on multiple devices, in multiple markets were vying for that same sweet audio and video feed.
Add that to the fact that, according to Unicef, two-thirds of the world’s kids don’t even have at-home internet access, and any continued shift to digital learning can create catastrophic levels of inequality moving forward into the future.
But it’s not just about international access levels. Even at home, single-device households, where kids learn on mom or dad’s laptop or phone, are common. Sometimes, there simply aren’t enough devices to fit the internet-heavy needs of a home on a day-to-day basis.
ATSC 3.0 gives us a glimmer of hope, and a strong step towards a solution that provides a one-size-fits all global solution. That’s rare.
Since the standard can deliver IP data packets consistently over broadcast at 25Mbps (maximum bit rate of 57 Mbps), the onus is on device makers and organizations to discover the best way to harness this capability.
But the education applications are already coming into focus: Will it be multimedia content for standardized testing delivered at a national level? Will the format of educational materials become more varied and creative simply as a response to having more convenient ways of distributing them?
While the education applications are coming into focus, vehicle manufacturers are already dabbling with ATSC 3.0 as an alternative to 4G/5G for connected vehicles.
In a series of tests conducted by Sony Inc. across a variety of drive routes in California, during which custom Sony chipsets were used to capture data packets, the delivery was surprisingly consistent across many signal strengths. This bodes well, not only for ‘infotainment’ applications in family vehicles, but perhaps more interestingly, to allow TV stations to deliver software updates or information to entire fleets of vehicles out in the field.
What are some of the everyday use-cases Canadians can look for on the horizon?
A big thing is audio, specifically “voice plus”, a service that decouples the audio from the video in innovative ways.
Imagine changing the volume of the dialogue vs the music, having far more options for voiceovers and subtitles, boosting the accessibility greatly… these are the types of additional data that ATSC 3.0 doesn’t sweat. More data doesn’t bump up against broadband limits, and since more data packets can come along with the broadcast, the options can continue to evolve.
Another interesting concept Noland brought to our attention involves the massive live sports industry, in particular the rapidly growing trend of Micro Sports Betting.
For those who don’t already participate in it, it refers to in-game wagers on the most minute elements such as “is he gonna touch the ball first”, or “is he gonna make the field goal?” Big in Europe, especially on tennis matches, the trend has gained tremendously in popularity stateside in recent years, thanks in part to apps like DraftKings, which partnered with micro-betting platform Simplebet in 2021.
“If you’re doing that kind of betting, it’s crucial that everyone gets the info at the exact same time.” she noted. “Latency can’t be a part of the equation.”
This is the power of broadcast. It’s synchronized with the actual program, no matter where it’s being received.
“Broadcast with ATSC 3.0 offers a one-to-many value proposition in terms of data delivery and delivers services via a broadcast application” added Orest. As ATSC 3.0 becomes a household name, the app economy will emerge to take advantage of its opportunities.
And that might not take long. Almost 3/4 of new smart TV’s being built are equipped with the 3.0 Tuner. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas ATSC 3.0 took the stage with Sony to unveil their latest NextGenTVs which has become a standard feature on all new models. “About two years ago, we decided that if we’re going to be doing this, we need to be all in,” said Nick Colsey, a vice president at Sony Electronics, during the panel. “No other TV manufacturer took that approach.”
Ok, but are broadcasters ready and sending out programs in 4K yet?
We asked our experts about the setup requirements for broadcasters. What kind of costs can broadcasters expect?
“Usually, it’s just a 10 – 15% higher cost compared to the setup for ATSC 1.0.” said Madeleine. “For those local stations and smaller outlets still making the switch, it’s a no-brainer to get set up for full compatibility, and get the 3.0-capable devices if the extra cost is amenable.”
From what we learned, there are approximately 2000 broadcasters in the U.S., and about a 1000 of them are set up for ATSC already.
Canada’s Involvement in ATSC 3.0
Since Orest Sushko leads the Humber Institute of Technology’s ATSC 3.0 efforts, and since Humber by wide margin, is emerging as Canada’s top lab for all things 3.0, there’s no better resource to give us a sense of how Canada’s helping impact ATSC 3.0’s development.
Working with Madeleine at ATSC, and the organization’s worldwide partners, Humber College has established the first ATSC 3.0 living lab in Canada – a place where industry, students and faculty can converge, experiment and create new possibilities with this standard, while transforming postsecondary education through global, polytechnic leadership.
Humber’s B²C Lab is operating through a joint NSERC/CFI College-Industry Innovation Fund. This fund supports lab infrastructure and growth of applied research capacity with industry partners.
By fostering partnerships between the College and the private sector, the initiative allows for business innovation to take root at local, regional and national levels – all helping support the adoption of ATSC 3.0 in Canada.
“We are thrilled to be setting up Canada’s first R&D test bed and innovation space that can be home to a portfolio of industry partners interested exploring both the television and datacasting applications offered with 3.0,” said Orest.
“We’ve just operationalized our in-lab ecosystem and are currently building our over-the-air (OTA) multiple transmitter/antenna system across both Humber North and Lakeshore campuses establishing a world test-site for ATSC 3.0 innovation. Our research roadmap with ATSC and industry will include development and testing of an IP-based inter-tower communications network (ITCN) with the broadcast system across our 3 T/Rx sites.”
“This would lead to development of a broadcast core network (BCN) digitally transforming the broadcast industry and introducing new point to multipoint services that could include broadcast internet delivery, tele-education, and other IoT services such as data delivery into connected cars.
In essence, ATSC 3.0 can serve as a capacity multiplier for data delivery and offer much more efficient use of television spectrum.
An example of a major upcoming goal is the ability to converge the broadcast core network with a 5G core network and other access technologies — this will create a heterogeneous data delivery system that takes advantage of the new capabilities of broadcast, and combines it with broadband and mobile networks to get more data to more places in more ways.
Orest explained that getting data services (internet) into remote communities is one thing – getting data back out (backhaul) is a tougher challenge.
“One of our industry partners, Avateq, is developing a solution offering ultra-long range wireless backhaul (ULRWB) using the ATSC 3.0 physical transmission layer,” he explained.
What this ULRWB system can do is send data back to a core networking service by hopping from tower to tower located 100 or more kilometers apart.
We’ll be staying tuned to the lab’s progress in this area, as it has the potential to be of significant benefit to internet delivery in rural and remote locations.
“It’s a tremendous initiative and we’re excited to be playing role in its development at Humber,” noted Sushko.
More information on the lab can be obtained at: b2convergence.ca
“The applications for emergency communications are boundless right now,” commented Noland. “In situations where you have a widespread emergency, an active shooter, a natural disaster, what have you…often a single cell tower is flooded and communications simply can’t get through.”
ATSC has the power to provide a state of the art emergency messaging system. Multiply that potential by thousands of daily emergencies globally, and the trickle-down effects on lives and properties saves, along with the saving for municipalities, could be exponential.
ATSC 3.0 won’t stop looking forward.
In a world where we watch so many of our shows on streaming, ATSC 3.0 is bullish on innovating its way into our homes and across every aspect of global society.
“We’re in it to break open what we see as our current data limitations,” said Noland. “We have the infrastructure, we have the system to run it on, and we have brilliant teams innovating every day.”
Designed to accommodate new viewing behaviors, and new data necessities, ATSC 3.0 is the new unified standard for broadcasters and OTT providers to deliver a next-generation content experience. It’s just a matter of giving the world and the private market opportunities to take advantage of the possibilities.
Being able to view content on any device, at any time, from any location is now something consumers are accustomed to. But new forms of content, both educational and entertaining, that is more interactive, more data heavy, and more customizable will be welcomed by consumers, and ATSC 3.0 is already there to help deliver to more people, more efficiently.
If pay-TV, linear TV, and OTT adapt and collaborate, viewers in the “when you want, where you want” programming platform of today will now be able to use ATSC 3.0 platform to view all content, no matter the source.
We’re obviously got our ears perked by the tech, and can’t wait to hear more as Orest and Madeline continue leading in their respective areas. Stay tuned to TechBomb as we bring you the latest in the space.