ATSC 3.0 hits the road at NAB 2019

ATSC NAB
In-vehicle applications will be an ATSC 3.0 topic of interest at NAB Show 2019. (Ben Munson/FierceVideo)

One of the highest-profile demonstrations of broadcast TV technology at the NAB Show won’t look much like television at all.

But the upcoming ATSC 3.0 broadcast-TV standard—aka “next-gen television”—is built to do more than just send a sharp picture to a large screen planted in a house. And considering that TV set manufacturers have yet to ship any models with ATSC 3 tuners built in, these other use cases could represent next-gen TV’s first outbreak of customer relevance.

The “single frequency network” exhibit that will take place in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s North Hall will spotlight a different possibility of ATSC 3.0: using multiple transmitters to deliver video as well as datacasting services across a wide area, without the variations in reception that frequently afflict current digital broadcasts.

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“In layman’s terms, it’s kind of the cellularization of broadcast,” said Sam Matheny, chief technology officer at the National Association of Broadcasters.

The show demo will involve four transmitters and a set of Microsoft Surface Pro tablets, each with an ATSC 3.0 receiver plugged in to pick up those TV signals.

One obvious application of that would be mobile TV—something vendors failed to make happen almost a decade ago.

“The big difference now is that we’re not trying to, for lack of a better way of putting it, shoehorn mobile into a standard that was not initially designed to be mobile,” Matheny said. He added that mobile ATSC 3.0 viewing would offer “a superior experience” compared to streaming over LTE broadband—a veiled dig at wireless carriers that cap streaming video at DVD-grade 480p resolution.

Analyst Gary Arlen, founder of Arlen Communications, noted that this ambition depends on smartphone manufacturers building in ATSC receivers—a possibility he judged exceedingly unlikely. “The mobile phones, there’s no chance that they’ll have a mobile DTV receiver,” he said.

Arlen judged another possibility raised by Matheny—new Wi-Fi routers that would add an ATSC 3 receiver—a bit more likely.

The NAB Show, which runs in Las Vegas from April 6 through April 11, will also spotlight automotive applications. While ATSC only offers limited two-way communication—compared to ATSC 1 being strictly one-way—that transmission-focused architecture could map well to such in-vehicle needs as sending entertainment, map and traffic data, and software updates to a car.

“It is a broadband wireless IP pipe,” Matheny said. “You can absolutely do that type of thing.”

For example, the Traffic Light Information system in most Audi vehicles, which broadcasts data about the state of stoplights—including how long they’ll stay green or red—amounts to a one-way conversation.

But all of these ambitions depend on something that NAB Show exhibits may not be able to answer: the ability of stations to pivot to these new business models. Arlen noted that, Sinclair aside, this change will take them into unfamiliar territory.

“It means retooling a whole TV station’s operations,” he said. “This is an industry that hasn’t been in this kind of business before.”

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