Concerns About Cost, the Need for ATSC 1.0 Lighthouses, and Why HDR TV Will Come Before UHD

With the move to ATSC 3.0 coming up in the not-too-distant future, attendees at the 2017 HPA Tech Retreat in Indian Wells, CA, last week (photo, top, courtesy HPA) heard from a panel of broadcasters on issues surrounding the transition. 

Leaving ATSC 1.0 Behind: Lighthouses in the Dark?

The transition from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0 will be tricky, panelists said during the annual session on broadcast. Moderator Matthew Goldman from Ericsson noted that so-called "candidate standards" will be complete in 2017. “But it’s not like you can just go on the air for 3.0,” he said. “Flash-cutting at midnight is one of the options that have been presented, but I don’t know how many people have 3.0 TV tuners out there, so you risk disenfranchising everyone.”

One scenario being floated involves “lighthouse” stations. Multiple stations in a market would act as ATSC 1.0 lighthouses, carrying the main programs at reduced resolution. That would allow for more ATSC 3.0 stations to take off right away. But the issue of transition is far from resolved.

NAB Senior Director of New Media Technologies Skip Pizzi pointed out that the FCC has to approve the lighthouse idea. “It’s dogs and cats living together on the same channel, and we don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. But, as PBS CTO Mario Vecchi observed, “Broadcasters still have an obligation to transmit 1.0.” The conclusion among several broadcasters was that the solution will be market-driven and will vary market-by-market.

For Broadcasters, HDR Will Come Before UHD

When it comes to higher-quality content, broadcasters said they see HDR as a first step before 4K/UHD. Vecchi said HDR is more cost-effective for distributors than UHD, and Pizzi argued that it will have a bigger impact on viewers, as well. "If you're using 1080p, it's the biggest bang for the bit," he said. Fox Networks EVP/GM Richard Friedel said Fox plans to offer HDR with the launch of ATSC 3.0 broadcasts.

Sinclair Broadcast Group SVP/CTO Del Parks agreed that UHD is expensive, but noted that most of Sinclair's stations could handle 1080p60 broadcasts with HDR. "That's our target," he said, "and we've already started looking at how to do it." CBS & CW TV Networks VP of Engineering and Advanced Technology Bob Seidel said CBS has been active in HDR tests and demos but hasn't made any decisions on how to move forward.

But all the broadcasters on the panel said they have plans to migrate to ATSC 3.0, although many noted that they have business questions requiring answers separate from the technology. Nearly all of them are already moving into IP infrastructure and discovering some of the tweaks that need to be made to make it work seamlessly, with some concerns about the fragility of the network.

Although streaming was cited as a growing influence, Parks pointed out a Pew study showing that U.S. broadband penetration is 67 percent, meaning one-third of the country still cannot stream. “And the reason for ATSC 3.0 is to emulate some of these services, since it’s IP-based,” he said. “It’s not either/or.”

"Broadcast continues to be a big part of our audience, especially for remote and under-served areas,” Vecchi explained. “We continue to believe it is a healthy way to distribute. But broadcasting over antennas doesn’t negate the other ways of reaching audiences.”

Repacking the Broadcast Spectrum

In a separate discussion, Goldman focused on plans for repacking or reallocating the spectrum. He said that, because the FCC has waived the quiet period on spectrum reallocation, broadcasters could talk about it in greater detail, but he warned that some details were still confidential. “The result of the fourth and final stage of the repack is that 84 MHz is cleared and 70 MHz is repurposed,” he said. “It started with the attempt to clear 126 MHz and took four stages to get to where they are. Everything above channel 36 is no longer TV, and there’s new mobile 5 MHz spectrum.”

That repack initiative is independent of ATSC 3.0. "It’s good to keep the two initiatives separate,” said Cox Media Group VP of Technical Operations Dave Siegler. “There is one small crossover, however. When we have to repack a station and we want to invest and add vertical polarity, the time to build the antenna is now. You don’t want to have to switch out the antenna a second time. We’re figuring out the cost delta, which will be important in some markets.”

Friedel noted that it’s not simply stations above 36 that will be impacted. “Even if you didn’t participate in the auction, you could still be required to repack,” he said. “About 1,300 stations are in this category. Regardless, most stations are going to be repacked.” 

He also pointed out that this was, in fact, the second repack in 12 years. “We’ve done this before in the transition to digital,” he said. “In doing this, we also have a requirement to notify all the medical facilities within our coverage area, so much is wrapped up in this repack. But we’re ready to go.” 

“There is a particular impact for non-commercial stations at the low end of the dial,” added Pizzi. “ If the FCC follows the optimization plan, the VHF moves, with channel 6 as the last option in the low band.” The lower you get in frequency, the longer and heavier the antennas get, added one broadcaster, potentially necessitating "some surgery" atop the broadcast tower.