The promises of the new ATSC 3.0 digital TV transmission system have been on display for several years now at each PBS TechCon gathering in Las Vegas. But this year, TechCon presented the first real-world ATSC 3.0 experiences from several early adopters.
It also presented many questions and challenges for stations looking ahead to an eventual conversion from today’s ATSC 1.0 system, especially as several big commercial players vie for early advantages by lining up pubcasters as conversion partners.
Early adopters take first steps
When Michigan State University’s WKAR-TV in East Lansing signed on its ATSC 3.0 transmitter Sept. 1, it was one of the first ATSC 3.0 signals on the air anywhere in the country. WKAR made an early bet on the new medium, said GM Susi Elkins during a TechCon session, passing up a potential spectrum sale and channel-sharing agreement during the FCC spectrum auction with the intent of hanging on to its spectrum to test ATSC 3.0.
WKAR opened a Next Gen Media Innovation Lab in June 2018, inviting commercial vendors in as partners to help develop new ATSC 3.0 technology. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly came to East Lansing to inaugurate the initial version of the lab, which Elkins said has already been replaced with a newer, expanded space in WKAR’s campus building.
At the transmission end, chief engineer Gary Blievernicht worked under a tight schedule to get special temporary authority from the FCC to operate a separate ATSC 3.0 transmission on RF channel 35, installing a second transmitter and antenna alongside WKAR’s ATSC 1.0 signal, which was itself in the process of being repacked from channel 40 to channel 33.
After carrying out that juggling act in partnership with transmitter maker Comark and encoder manufacturer Triveni, WKAR faced one of the paradoxes of ATSC 3.0’s early days: Its 70-kilowatt signal may cover most of central Michigan, but so far, nobody can actually watch it. Consumer ATSC 3.0 receivers aren’t expected to be on the market until sometime in 2020, leaving WKAR’s new signal broadcasting to only a handful of prototype receivers for now. Even those aren’t foolproof, Blievernicht said at TechCon; several lower-cost “dongle”-type adapters haven’t been able to successfully decode the ATSC 3.0 signal as expected.
Without real-world viewers, WKAR and its technology partners have been free to experiment with some of ATSC 3.0’s potential. WKAR’s show Curious Crew is already interactive, using local schoolkids ages 9–13 as cast members for a weekly round of science and technology experiments. Working with Triveni, WKAR added a set of icons to its ATSC 3.0 broadcast of Curious Crew to make the show interactive for viewers at home as well. While the students conduct experiments on screen, ATSC 3.0 viewers can click on icons at the side of the screen to bring up additional information and see external content.
Adding options to a big screen came with limitations, though. Triveni’s Mark Corl said his team, along with WKAR, quickly found that TV’s “lean-back” experience has to be treated differently on a phone or tablet.
“Try doing anything remote control on a TV, and it’s slow,” he told a packed room at TechCon. “Entering a password on Netflix takes 15 minutes. If you do anything with interactive content that requires a lot of input, it’s not going to work on a big-screen TV with a remote control.”
“In the end, program content is king,” Corl said. “You’ve spent a lot of effort building that content. The last thing you want to do is put up a lot of graphics and take people’s attention away from it.”
As WKAR pushes forward with its ATSC 3.0 experiment, hoping to get more receivers in the field, it continues to work with interactivity. Elkins says the station may make ATSC 3.0 part of a research project it’s conducting in the Lansing public schools, where 2,000 students have received inexpensive PBS Kids “playtime pads” for educational outreach. With ATSC 3.0, Elkins hopes those pads could serve as a “second screen,” presenting educational content alongside WKAR’s TV broadcasts.
Blievernicht said WKAR has also begun to experiment with ATSC 3.0’s promise of better video and audio quality. So far, he said, the new system’s more efficient coding has allowed for improved pictures to be transmitted in less bandwidth than ATSC 1.0 — even if few viewers can see it.
DTV alliances woo pubcasters
While WKAR was experimenting with its own second signal for ATSC 3.0, Arizona PBS in Phoenix was already on the air as the first pubcaster in the new medium. Unlike WKAR, the Arizona State University station is broadcasting its ATSC 3.0 signal as part of a larger industry partnership as one of eight licensees taking part in the “Phoenix Model Market.”
While Arizona PBS is just one small part of the Model Market project, it’s hoping its status as the only pubcaster in the group will allow it to lead the way in testing some of ATSC 3.0’s promises — in particular, the system’s ability to deliver high-speed data to areas that lack fast internet service. Analyst Rick Ducey of BIA told a TechCon audience that it’s a particular issue in Arizona, where Arizona PBS’ ATSC 3.0 signal could bring educational content to Hispanic and Native populations who already watch PBS programming but can’t easily access its interactive content.
The Phoenix project is led by Pearl TV, an industry
consortium whose partners include big commercial TV owners such as Univision,
Fox TV, Scripps and Nexstar. Using a Phoenix TV signal owned by Univision as a
test bed, Pearl is experimenting with compression techniques to pack multiple
TV streams, including Arizona PBS’, into a single ATSC 3.0 signal. Pearl is
also testing related technology on the Phoenix signal, including data
transmission for public safety and audience measurement for ATSC 3.0
At TechCon and the NAB Show that followed in Las Vegas, several groups with the weight of multiple stations and owners behind them sought to negotiate ATSC 3.0 deals with public broadcasters. In addition to the Pearl consortium, those groups included the Public Media Venture Group and Spectrum Co., a commercial venture led by Sinclair.
Those conversations are becoming more urgent because of how the FCC is implementing the ATSC 3.0 rollout: Stations that want to broadcast in the new standard will also have to retain a “lighthouse” ATSC 1.0 signal to serve viewers who don’t rush into buying new receivers.
Because the two standards can’t coexist on one channel, the FCC expects stations in each market to cooperate, using one station’s spectrum to share ATSC 3.0 signals and another’s to serve as the ATSC 1.0 lighthouse for cooperating stations.
With only a finite number of stations in each market and an increasing number owned by only a handful of big commercial broadcast groups, those partnerships are forming quickly. Just after TechCon, the Pearl group and Spectrum Co. jointly announced the formation of a broad coalition of station groups, including America’s Public Television Stations, to launch ATSC 3.0 partnerships in 40 of the largest TV markets by the end of 2020.
That coalition is competing against PMVG, which is seeking its own commercial partners with a focus on building out single-frequency networks that can spread ATSC 3.0 signals more broadly around the markets it plans to serve. Experts on TechCon panels said that even without receivers in the marketplace for at least another year, broadcasters shouldn’t mistake a lack of viewers for a lack of urgency.
“Even if you’re not going to be a market leader [in ATSC 3.0], you can’t just wait around. You have to start considering all the options you have,” said industry analyst Mark Fratrik of BIA. “There may be some lines of business you’re already frozen out of,” he said, noting that the commercial alliances have already started to make lucrative deals with hospital chains to lease data space for telemedicine on ATSC 3.0 signals.
Some regulatory issues are still in flux as well, especially the FCC requirement that stations find partners whose signals can duplicate 95% of their existing population in order to light up both ATSC 3.0 and an ATSC 1.0 lighthouse through channel-sharing. Many statewide networks with transmitters in rural areas may not find commercial stations with similar signal coverage to partner with, Fratrik said, which may require regulatory relief from Washington.
“There are going to be more questions than answers for now,” he said. “This is an evolving process.”
In an earlier version of this article, WKAR’s science and technology series for children was misidentified as Curiosity Crew. The correct title is Curious Crew.