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ATSC 3.0 and MVPDs

Complex retransmission process gets underway

Original Post: Gary Arlen, TV Technology, December 20, 2016

ALEXANDRIA, VA.—Everyone involved with examining how cable systems will retransmit broadcast nextgen ATSC 3.0 signals concurs on one point, although they say it in different ways: “It’s too early.” “Still pretty vague.” “Will evolve over time.” “A problem that won’t exist soon.”

But broadcasting and cable technical executives are already discussing how multichannel video program distributors (MVPD) will handle “redistribution” (the new preferred term) of the forthcoming all-IP ATSC 3.0 signals. The recently created Specialist Group on Conversion and Redistribution of ATSC 3.0 Service has held several preliminary meetings on the topic, and the Digital Video Services committee of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) will make its first plunge into redistribution issues during its quarterly meeting in San Diego this month.

BABY STEPS

Mark Richer, president of the Advanced TV Systems Committee, expects that ultimately 3.0 redistribution decisions will be based on business and regulatory factors, not technology.

“ATSC 3.0 is specifically designed to be carried over broadband on IP networks,” Richer said. He envisions that “many layers” of the 3.0 signal could be pulled in by cable operators. “There is no big technical problem,” Richer said, but he emphasized that ATSC’s role is focused on establishing standards, not on business decisions.

The new ATSC specialists group is formally called Technology Group 3, Subcommittee 37 (TG3/S37), or “S37.” A broadcast executive on the subcommittee who insisted on anonymity (as did a half-dozen other project participants contacted by TV Technology) acknowledged that there will be “a difference in timetables” between broadcast and cable organizations as the discussions evolve.

“Each group is scoping out what to deal with in conversion and redistribution,” the source said. “Right now, it’s just baby steps.” He pointed out that various organizations are at different stages in their IP deployment process, and noted that there are “other challenges” as broadcasters move away from a TV-centric architecture into the IP environment.

After a meeting of S27 members in New York last month, a broadcast technology executive in attendance characterized the situation as “still very early.”

“Each group is scoping out what to deal with,” he said, citing broadcasters’ concerns about how to convert signals from 3.0 to a variety of cable and satellite environments. “The big problems are just beginning to be discussed.”

There is no timetable for S37’s agenda or decisions/recommendations.

As ATSC 3.0 evolves, broadcasters envision using it for many interactive as well as non-video services, most of which fall far beyond traditional cable retransmission agreements. Many analysts expect a long transition period since 3.0 is not backward-compatible, and hence current TV receivers will not be able to pick up signals.

Dean Stoneback, senior director, engineering and standards at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, pointed out that, “there’s no need to convert 3.0 to 1.0 until the 1.0 ceases to exist—until broadcasters turn off the 1.0 signal.” Stone-back said his group’s initial discussions at the December DVS committee meeting will examine how to handle backward-compatibility as well as issues such as how to ingest 3.0 content.

SCTE is an “observer” at ATSC and has been invited to attend future S37 meetings, which will explore redistribution.

One goal of the current discussions is to establish procedures for MVPDs to carry ATSC 3.0 content, probably by converting it to the current ATSC 1.0 standard, which they distribute. According to its mandate, the ATSC TG3/S37 “develops and maintains ‘Recommended Practices, Standards’ and other documents relating to the conversion and redistribution of ATSC 3.0 services.”

Another cable technology executive familiar with the ATSC 3.0 process pointed out that the 3.0 switch from 8-VSB modulation to orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) is just one of the challenges facing cable redistribution. In addition, the move away from MPEG-2 transport will mean that existing set-top boxes would be unable to receive the ATSC 3.0 signals. Moreover, 3.0 will introduce new codecs and an application layer based on HTML5—all of which means that 3.0 will face a lack of existing infrastructure.

He also raised the issue that there is “no answer yet about who will actually set the standards and specifications” for redistribution, although he contended that “the problem will eventually be resolved.”

“That’s probably something ATSC will be responsible for” since both the input and output will be in ATSC formats, he added.

As for carriage of non-video IP content, he said “that’s in the application layer” so it’s a matter for business strategy and “outside the scope of what we can discuss” on the technical side.

A veteran broadcast executive who has long been active in ATSC said that he expects “advanced services and features of 3.0 will require new agreements that will be established in future retransmission negotiations.”

Richer said that MVPDs could pull in many of the layers of 3.0, underscoring his contention that there is “no big technical problem,” but that eventually business decisions will determine cable or satellite redistribution of 3.0 signals.

NEXT STEPS FOR NEXT-GEN TV

ATSC expects to confirm its 3.0 standard in early 2017, and then it will take several years to deploy technology through the U.S. broadcast infrastructure. (In Korea, which has adopted the ATSC 3.0 standard already, TV stations will begin beaming 3.0 signals in February, to prepare for wider transmission of the signals in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics there).

Stoneback of SCTE pointed out that since cable uses quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) and telco TV systems generally use IP, the arrival of broadcast 3.0 faces technical hurdles aside from the current total lack of equipment.

Another technology consultant observed that the challenge involves MPEG-2 transport stream versus multicast User Datagram Protocol (UDP)/IP. He expects that this “minor technical problem” will be resolved as cable systems themselves transition to IP-delivered services.

A broadcast technology executive familiar with the 3.0 process also pointed out that the redistribution negotiations will eventually encompass factors such as the SMPTE standard for compressed audio/video and the High Definition Serial Digital Interface—all of which must be lined up for decisions about how/if they are included in the redistribution plans.

Hence, the importance of these early-stage technology discussions.

The S37 subcommittee includes cable and satellite distributors as well as broadcasters and technology suppliers. NCTA, CableLabs and Comcast are members of ATSC, as are many equipment companies (both receiver makers such as LG, Samsung and Sony, and transmission/studio product manufacturers, such as Gates Air, Harmonic and Panasonic) plus broadcast station groups and networks and program producers.

All sides are awaiting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking from the FCC dealing with ATSC 3.0. In response to an FCC Public Notice last spring about plans to explore ATSC 3.0 policy, the American Cable Association and NCTA, which represents cable operators and vendors, opposed any rush to action.

“Cable operators have no legal obligation to carry the ATSC 3.0 signal during the transition,” NCTA said in its filing last May. “Carriage of an ATSC 1.0 signal will continue to fulfill cable operators’ obligations.”

In testimony to Congress in September, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (a possible temporary or permanent FCC Chairman after the Trump transition next month) said he would like to see the FCC’s ATSC 3.0 rulemaking proceed “no later than the end of this year.” That is much faster than current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expects. Pai told a Senate oversight committee that, “just as the United States is leading the way on 5G in the mobile space, so too should we be at the forefront of innovation in the broadcast space.

“Let’s allow broadcasters who wish to move forward with ATSC 3.0 to pursue this pro-consumer path as quickly as possible,” Pai said.

AFFECTED BY THE SPECTRUM AUCTION

Although the ATSC 3.0 transition is unrelated to the current broadcast spectrum auction, some analysts have suggested that TV station owners may factor the expense and opportunities of future IP services into their auction strategies.

After his remarks to a Media Institute luncheon in Washington last month, NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith waved off questions about whether the auction and 3.0 implementation are intertwined. He said that the two issues will unfold separately.

“The auctions will be long over before 3.0 reaches the marketplace,” Smith said in response to a query from TV Technology. “The outcome of the auction is not in our hands and we hope” it progresses smoothly.

“There are many complexities in the move to 3.0,” Smith said, after citing the oft-repeated benefits the technology will bring to broadcasters. He acknowledged that the 3.0 transition will be “expensive” but that his members “are anxious to advance their businesses” through the services it will enable. This is an option that recognizes good policy,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, NAB has continued to challenge the FCC’s efforts to accelerate the post-auction repacking of local airwaves. In reply comments for the FCC proceeding about spectrum repacking, NAB argued that the 39-month timetable is unfeasible and it urged the commission to reject cable operators’ arguments that they should not be subject to must-carry and retransmission requirements for TV stations that temporarily share channels.

Such decisions could eventually have an impact on cable’s carriage of 3.0 signals if the repacking process extends for four years or longer—in other words, if 3.0 rollout occurs during repacking.

NAB concluded that “the record of this proceeding” suggests that the commission’s proposed repacking timetable “is unlikely to produce a workable and efficient plan in practice.”

CTIA, which represents wireless carriers, has urged the commission to stick with its 39-month timetable, which would give wireless providers early access to the acquired airwaves. In the process, carriers could get a jump on services that may eventually be developed for 3.0 non-broadcast features, according to analysts who follow inter-industry developments.

All of these policy possibilities mean that the current low-key S37 “redistribution” technical discussions may simmer for a while before boiling up in financially charged negotiations when the market is ready for 3.0 services.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC, a research and consulting firm. He can be reached at www.ArlenCom.com.

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