CHAT ROOM: State of the Art

In the Chat Room this month, THE STANDARD sat down with Brian Markwalter, Senior Vice President, Technology and Research, at the Consumer Technology Association and long-time member of the ATSC Board of Directors. His perspectives on the state of Next Gen TV are timely and relevant for broadcasters and receiver manufacturers alike.

THE STANDARD: Now that the ATSC 3.0 standard has been released and broadcasters around the country are starting to test Next Gen TV services, how is CTA’s work progressing on recommended practices for ATSC 3.0 receivers? 

MARKWALTER: CTA recommended practices covering a number of key ATSC 3.0 aspects – Physical Layer, Logical Layer, Video and Audio – are already finished.  Our draft RP on emergency alerting is getting close to ballot, and discussions are getting under way on the recommended practice for security. All of this is really quite remarkable considering that a single working group does all the development of these RPs. Not to mention the fact that many of the people involved are still supporting ATSC committees and turning their attention to implementation and field testing.

It’s not surprising that our family of recommended practices for ATSC 3.0 receivers [known as the CTA-CEB32.x] has developed pretty similarly to the ATSC standards, with the core audio, video, signaling and physical layer work being most mature. Next up after security, which is a hot topic in the industry right now, come recommendations for captions and subtitles and “runtime” environments.

You know, it’s very timely that CTA and ATSC will be co-locating our meetings in Hollywood the first week of October; our Tech & Standards Forums draw engineering leaders from across the technology and content sectors. It’s a fantastic opportunity for everyone to compare notes, prioritize and push to wrap up receiver recommendations by the end of the year.

THE STANDARD: What’s going on these days at joint CTA-NAB test station in Cleveland? Any key learnings so far, Brian?

MARKWALTER: Thanks to NAB’s project leadership and field work by our expert consultants (Meintel, Sgrignoli and Wallace), we’ve completed the first round of testing to evaluate basic performance of two early ATSC 3.0 receivers over four diverse transmission modes – ranging from the high data rate needed for 4K UHD to robust low data rates for mobile services. The testing used one commercial grade receiver and one prototype consumer receiver, so we could confirm that lab-grade receivers and everyday TVs for consumers perform as expected and will meet broadcaster needs for services.

The bottom line is that both receivers performed well over the wide range of tests. The years of work in ATSC that produced receiver performance guidelines (A/74) has carried through in these first ATSC 3.0 receivers. Dynamic range, sensitivity and noise thresholds are where we want them to be.  Except for a couple of severe cases, multipath results are good and suggest that ATSC 3.0 is positioned for successful use of properly designed SFNs (single-frequency networks). Various combinations of ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 adjacent and co-channel interference look like they meet design expectations and will allow 1.0 and 3.0 to co-exist in markets during a transition. We have some work to do on 3.0-to-3.0 co-channel interference, but that’s known and already being addressed in the standards committee.

We’re laying out plans to test “higher layers” and more ATSC 3.0 services, too, in Cleveland. It’s gratifying to see the breadth of ATSC 3.0 testing underway all over the country. From our engineering-focused testing in Cleveland to SFNs in Dallas, market tests in Phoenix, and experimental stations in Raleigh, Chicago, Santa Barbara and elsewhere, the industry is stepping up to prove out the system in preparation for wide-spread deployments down the road.

THE STANDARD: From the perspective of the consumer technology industry, what’s the mid- and longer-term outlook for Next Gen TV?

MARKWALTER: What do you expect the consumer tech guy to say? The outlook is fantastic! Really, everything we see says that consumers are hungry for entertainment options, especially the premium viewing experience they get with 4K UHD resolution and HDR. We even see renewed interest in antennas as consumers “right-size” their video subscriptions. More than 8 million Americans will buy a TV antenna this year – and the reports we’ve seen suggest one in five consumers say they watch TV through an antenna.

Consumers have purchased over 36 million 4K UHD TVs to date in the U.S., and about half of the TVs sold this year will be UHD. Unlike the first DTV transition, when we were introducing consumers to a new broadcast standard and a completely different kind of TV, the market for Next Gen TV is already primed, and consumers love what they see.

There’s another tailwind behind ATSC 3.0 and Next Gen TV – the growth of Smart TVs. More than two-thirds of TVs sold this year will be Smart. There’s a double benefit for ATSC 3.0. First, the ATSC was smart to “skate where the puck is going” by being the first broadcast DTV standard built on Internet standards. Consumers are already there, connecting their Smart TVs to the Internet and streaming more content that ever. Second, the installed base of Smart TVs provides a platform for introducing ATSC 3.0 with the “Wi-Fi gateway” concept. With these kinds of devices, we’ll be able to light up existing TVs with Next Gen TV broadcasts as soon as they’re on the air.

Speaking of “on the air,” the next six months are critical as a setup for the widespread adoption of ATSC 3.0 in 2020 and beyond. Together with broadcasters, we need to pin down exactly which features in the Next Gen toolbox will be used and how we will make the voluntary transition to 3.0. Luckily, many of the same bright people who brought us the ATSC 3.0 standard have shifted their focus to building it. That’s the effort we need before the 2020 TV model year planning cycle that gets underway in earnest next summer.