ATSC 3.0 chips in the iPhone and other smartphones? Don’t hold your breath

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The ATSC 3.0 suite of standards is likely to be finalized by the start of the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual show in April 2017.

ATSC 3.0 technology—the audio and video transmission standard TV broadcasters are hoping to eventually migrate to—carries with it the promise of many new features, including delivering enhanced broadcast TV to mobile devices. But that means, at some point, new receivers will be needed in those devices, and that process will take time.

The ATSC 3.0 suite of standards is likely to be finalized by the start of the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual show in April 2017 and will be comprised of sections including PHY, delivery, personalization and security. It recently received a boost when the FCC initiated a public rulemaking process for the standard, which will serve to authorize ATSC 3.0 for commercial use.

In its filing, the FCC said that ATSC 3.0 will help enable Ultra High Definition (UHD) picture and immersive audio, more localized programming content, an advanced emergency alert system, better accessibility options and interactive services.

“With today’s action, we aim to facilitate private sector innovation and promote American leadership in the global broadcast industry,” the FCC wrote in today’s filing.

Final authorization from the FCC likely won’t happen until the end of 2017, meaning that the transition to ATSC 3.0 won’t begin in earnest until 2018. The process will take years but, for new features outlined by the FCC as well as mobile broadcasts, many broadcasters are keen to make the transition.

Mobile a big selling point

In fact, mobile has been one of the biggest selling points so far for broadcasters considering the costly and time-consuming jump to ATSC 3.0.

Dave Arland, spokesperson for the Advanced Television Systems Committee, which is responsible for developing the ATSC 3.0 standards, said ATSC 1.0 also had a mobile capacity baked in after that standard was adopted in the ’90s but that 1.0 was more designed for reception by a living room TV connected to a rooftop antenna.

“The smartphone and the tablet didn’t exist at that time,” Arland told FierceBroadcasting.

Of course, smartphones and tablets have greatly proliferated in the U.S. market since ATSC 1.0 was adopted and ATSC 3.0 is being designed to better cater to those devices.

“ATSC 3.0 anticipates that many viewers may be watching on a future device with an embedded ATSC 3.0 tuner,” said Arland. “So it will be possible to receive a signal and display it deep inside a building or for a passenger to view live TV on a mobile device in a car or train.”

Products for the home will come first

ATSC 3.0 will first focus on products in the home, where the bulk of broadcast TV viewing happens. Through early ATSC 3.0 gateways, like the combination Wi-Fi router and TV tuner products that LG showed off at the NAB show last year, ATSC 3.0 signals will be distributed in the home and that will likely be how mobile devices first get access to ATSC 3.0 content.

But for a truly mobile experience that follows out of the home and off Wi-Fi, chipset receivers will need to be embedded in devices.

According to Arland, once ATSC 3.0 is set in stone, chipmakers will be able to build an ATSC 3.0 receiving chip with the full capacity of standard. After that, it’s time to take the ATSC 3.0 case to mobile OEMs like Apple, Samsung, LG and other smartphone and tablet vendors, as well as mobile device chipset vendors like Qualcomm and MediaTek.

“Negotiations would need to take place with the mobile phone manufacturers and cellular companies to plan integration of this functionality and to enable its use—much the same as what happened with Wi-Fi chips several years ago,” Arland said.

Sam Matheny, chief technology officer for NAB, said that, like Wi-Fi, he envisions ATSC 3.0 support finding its way into the more all-purpose communications chip.

“As the technology matures, we’d love to see the chipmakers include ATSC 3.0 in a multipurpose communications chip,” Matheny said.

Matheny was careful not to push out the integration timetable for ATSC 3.0 in mobile device chips too far but did admit that the development will take time.

“I do think that ATSC 3.0 is going to be in mobile devices and that those chips will be there,” said Matheny. “But it’s going to be a staged approach. … It’s just a matter of timing.”

“Somebody has to blink”

Roger Entner, telecom analyst, said getting device makers to incorporate ATSC 3.0 chips might be difficult because it could cause incremental increases to device costs and squeeze margins, leaving OEMs searching for the upside of building it in. He also added that it won’t be much of a debate until the standards are in use.

“Nobody is going to put in the chips unless they’re broadcasting. Somebody has to blink and it’s not going to be the OEMs,” Entner said.

Of course, the idea of delivering broadcast TV over IP isn’t exactly new.

More than 10 years ago, Qualcomm launched a mobile TV service called Flo TV, based on its MediaFlo technology that allowed for real-time audio and video to be delivered to mobile devices via IP networks. Carriers like AT&T and Verizon offered the service, which for $10 per month would deliver network programming from the Disney Channel, Comedy Central and Fox News. Qualcomm eventually shuttered the service and sold the spectrum it used to AT&T.

Since that time, Qualcomm has become involved in some of the specialist groups developing the management and protocol technologies within the ATSC 3.0 suite of standards.

Currently, vMVPDs like DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV all offer varying amounts of local broadcast content, and major broadcasters like CBS have launched standalone IP-based streaming products, meaning that lots of broadcast television is already being delivered over the internet. That fact could affect the decision of mobile device makers considering adding ATSC 3.0 capabilities to their smartphones and tablets.

Of course, having a chipmaker like Qualcomm working on the standards and a smartphone maker like LG developing ATSC 3.0-compatible consumer electronics may bode well for the mobile future of ATSC 3.0. But mobile carriers will also have a say in whether ATSC 3.0 support is built into mobile devices.

While wireless carriers haven’t necessarily come out against ATSC 3.0, they have certainly signaled some hesitation around the technology. Both AT&T and CTIA, a group serving wireless industry interests, have urged the FCC to not award channel repack funds to broadcasters for ATSC 3.0 transition work following the end of the 600 MHz broadcast incentive auctions. Verizon, though it may have cooled to the idea of offering video over LTE-broadcast technology, may still be reticent to see next-gen TV service technology baked into the mobile devices it offers.

Wireless carriers were also resistant to turning on FM radio chips in smartphones, likely due in part to the rise of streaming music services and the fact that FM radio reception wouldn’t cost users any mobile data.

Benefits will drive a solution

Matheny said the key thing that broadcasters can do to ensure ATSC 3.0 chips make it into mobile devices is to focus on getting through the regulatory process and earn the FCC’s blessing to transmit ATSC 3.0 signals.

“From there we think that the benefits are really going to help drive a market-based solution,” said Matheny.

Among those other benefits of IP-based standards like ATSC 3.0 besides mobile, which Matheny discussed during the NAB Show New York in November, is moving to orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing and better compression technology that will free up more bandwidth for offering 4K Ultra HD, high dynamic range and immersive audio.

Matheny added that it helps that ATSC 3.0 has already been adopted in South Korea and broadcasts are beginning there this year, which will give a leg up to big consumer electronics manufacturers based in South Korea like Samsung and LG.

“They’re already beginning to build ATSC 3.0 devices. They’ll be deployed in South Korea first and we think that’s really going to lay the groundwork for deployment in the U.S. and other places as well,” Matheny said.

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the NAB, added that, by broadcasters having the most popular TV content, it should more than incentivize device makers to add ATSC 3.0 compatibility.

“Those are incentives that we think will drive demand on the part of viewers, who will then ask the smartphone makers to get the chips in mobile devices down the road,” Wharton told FierceBroadcasting.