In November 2017, the US regulator FCC adopted new rules which enable broadcasters to use ATS3.0 for what is being termed as NexGen TV or 4K terrestrial transmission. This will result in a quantum jump in the capabilities which can be delivered over broadcast television. These include 4K UHD and HDTV simulcast, inclusion of HDR with wide color gamut, immersive audio, 120 fps frame rate, and native 3D transmission capability.
In the meantime, South Korea, host to the 2018 Winter Olympics, had kick started 4K transmissions in May 2017 with three major local broadcasters — MBC, KBS, and SBS beginning transmissions using ATSC 3.0.
4K UHD – Waiting for an Ecosystem
While 4K content has been available via streaming websites such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, the availability has been limited due to the lack of a large UHD broadcasting ecosystem where content such as games, soaps, and movies are continuously produced and telecast in 4K HDR. In Europe BBC has just made 4K content available via its 4K iPlayer, essentially testing the waters. DBS providers have also been working for providing 4K channels but there are only a handful of such channels.
4K streaming technologies using Silverlight, HLS, or Adobe HDS are a burden on the Internet owing to their unicast nature with a separate Internet streaming connection for each user. For live events with viewership in millions, the scaling of architecture required for CDN for peak demand 4K or 8K is too elaborate and expansive.
Private IPTV Networks and Multicasting
This brings into focus the private IPTV networks like Level3 TVR (now acquired by T-Mobile). The Level 3 TV (termed as the new cable) is actually an IPTV offering based on the use of only leased line networks and FTTH to homes with over 150 HD and 4K channels, without traversing the public Internet. Its set-top boxes have the capability of up to eight simultaneous channels being recorded. 5G offerings by T-Mobile are likely to use these technologies. The service differs from other OTT services, such as Sling TV which uses the Internet.
The industry is looking at ways to implement multicast of 4K content as a via media but its success remains to be demonstrated. Multicast or eMBBS can be implemented over private networks, and it is expected to disrupt OTT TV for linear content.
NexGen TV as a Game Changer
This brings the focus back on the 4K or NexGen broadcasting (streaming over the air) with ATSC 3.0 as a game changer. Not only will it give a boost to the 4K video processing ecosystem worldwide, it also will lead to faster cord cutting. Streaming over the air is well-suited for smartphones as these do not need to use the data network for receiving content, and yet retain interactivity currently lacking in today’s terrestrial broadcast systems. It gives broadcasters the tools needed for new revenue models without incurring unicast CDN costs, and companies are already working to develop this ecosystem.
Proliferation of NexGen TV is expected to be rapid as the percentage of UHD capable TVs alone is expected to rise to over 56 percent by 2020, at over 600 million devices in addition to smartphones. India with its smartphone base of over 500 million, is potentially well placed for technologies such as ATSC 3.0 which seem to have superiority over DVB-T2, at least in its current form. India’s terrestrial spectrum is largely unused, except for a few Prasaar Bharti slots, and it may be the right time to take a quantum jump to the new streaming over the air technology.
4K compatible smartphones have been around since 2013, and are now common with the advent of Snapdragon 800 chipsets, and recording in 4K with professional quality video is being showcased as a key feature. ATSC 3.0 is not being seen merely as a broadcast evolution, but as a complete merger of the two worlds of broadcasting (over the air streaming) and IP. The revenue models will be entirely new, and the technology is now taking us to an era unexplored and unfathomed.