ATSC 3.0 Passes Key Test, But Is It Ready to Graduate?

South Korea test signals leap, but business model remains incomplete

When LG Electronics tested an end-to-end 4K broadcast using the next-gen ATSC 3.0 standard Feb. 23 in South Korea, it promised to be a signal moment in the progress of the world’s first IP-based broadcast system.

The test wouldn’t be a repeat of the live 4K HDR broadcasts using ATSC 3.0 at January’s CES. Those trial runs used pre-recorded material loaded directly to a transmitter. This time, the test would feature a live camera feed with real-time IP transmissions, involving Korean broadcasters SBS and MBC, broadcast equipment supplier TeamCast of France, video software supplier Media Excel of the U.S. and the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) of Korea.

“It’s a first, and it’s a major step for ATSC 3.0,” said LG spokesman John Taylor. “It shows the progress being made.”

The test was deemed a success by more than just LG. An announcement soon followed that broadcasters in South Korea would begin transmitting over-the-air ATSC 3.0 broadcasts beginning in February 2017.

While the new setup passed muster, the question lingered: Just how important was the news for ATSC 3.0, the new standard promising to combine broadband and broadcast, enabling new over-the-air services including 4K and HDR, targeted advertising and immersive audio? It depends on who you ask.

“It wasn’t at a trade show, and that’s a good sign,” noted Mark Richer, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), with a smile. “But also it used more real-time hardware, so it was closer to a more practical implementation from a broadcasting standpoint, compared to what was done as a demo at CES. Demos are really important, but really getting it implemented into the field in real time is of course a bigger challenge.”

He said seeing multiple broadcasters and multiple professional equipment manufacturers and consumer electronics companies all on the same page bodes well for ATSC 3.0, with the field trial allowing everyone to check for interoperability, and make sure the equipment and services worked together correctly.

Anne Schelle, managing director of Pearl TV—a consortium of more than 200 TV stations that is backing ATSC 3.0—called the successful test “profoundly good news for next-generation TV in the U.S.,” and pointed out that South Korea is pushing ahead with 4K broadcasting for good reason: it will host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“Technical work on the standard is almost done,” she said. “So we expect the focus to turn next to the FCC, and authorizing the transmission of next-generation TV signals through over-the-air channels. We see this as an innovative enhancement to our existing platform and will be implementing 3.0 signals while maintaining our 1.0 service.

“Similar to wireless carrier introductions of system upgrades, consumers will continue to enjoy their 1.0 service and have the option to add 3.0 service.”

However, Sam Rosen, ABI Research managing director and VP of consumer market research, said it would be wise if those involved with ATSC 3.0 tempered their expectations after the South Korean announcement. He pointed to the amount of GDP companies including LG and Samsung bring to Korea and that the government is very invested in driving the worldwide demand for 4K services and content. That doesn’t mirror what’s happening with broadcasters in the U.S., he said.

“They’re looking at the 4K UHD ecosystem, and making sure they’re at the forefront, and they’ve provided a lot of incentives for broadcasters to be part of the ecosystem,” he said. “Despite what you see going on in Korea, it looks to me like a technology in need of a business case more than anything else.

“While these companies are really interested in the technology, they need to show Congress that they’re making an effort to bring the network forward so that they don’t lose their seat at the table in terms of spectrum rights.” He added a realistic expectation for ATSC 3.0’s widespread adoption in the U.S. would be 2020, “when 4K becomes a little bit more necessary as a baseline competitive service.”

“A lot of people are looking at how to get content over their networks, and the mass of content and the change of content going from linear to on-demand is creating opportunities for every technology to catch up,” Rosen added. “I don’t see the business model yet, even though we’ve seen good demonstrations on how ATSC 3.0 can be a good part of a content delivery network and some sort of gateway into the home.”

LG’s Taylor admits South Korea has a leg up in its ability to deploy ATSC 3.0 commercially and has more of a sense of urgency to move forward with UHD 4K broadcasts.

“Korea isn’t as spectrum challenged as we in the United States, and there will be challenges as broadcasters move to new channels,” Taylor said. “But if you look at what’s been done, there have been huge incremental improvements, from our perspective. It’s going to be an evolving story. Stay tuned.”