We’ve been hearing about ATSC 3.0 for a while, and it was big news at CES this year. It’s a good time to answer some general questions about the technology, how it’s developing, and what it might mean for the broadcast industry.
ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) standards are industry standards for digital television transmission in the US, Canada, and a few other countries throughout the world. The current standard is ATSC 1.0, which was developed in the early 1990s and adopted by the FCC in 1996.
That means the current standard is 20 years old. Of course there have been some updates in that time, but much of the broadcast infrastructure is extremely old (by technology standards) at this point. And from a spectrum-use standpoint, ATSC 1.0 is inefficient. In other words, not enough data can be sent over the spectrum set aside for digital television.
That’s where ATSC 3.0 comes in. It’s a new standard that corrects ATSC 1.0’s inefficiency and offers additional features. Here are the highlights:
- ATSC 3.0 offers more efficient use of the broadcast spectrum. This is especially important since that spectrum is limited by government allocation
- ATSC 3.0 can support broadband. With a set-top box hooked up to an ATSC 3.0 antennae, and an ethernet hookup to the internet, data can come through the ATSC pipe or the broadband pipe. Ultimately, this means that viewers can control what they’re watching (e.g. with VOD or PPV) without a cable company.
- ATSC 3.0 supports HEVC, which is four times more efficient than MPEG-2. The same broadcast spectrum will support four times the data rate of ATSC 1.0. This makes broadcast of 4K TV much more feasible from a bandwidth standpoint.
- ATSC 3.0 includes mobile capabilities. It’s not clear yet how these will be implemented, but support for mobile viewing is essential for new broadcasting workflows.
So when will we start seeing ATSC 3.0 adoption? That’s a complicated question. It was demonstrated at CES, so we know that it’s technically feasible. But there are barriers to adoption.
The largest barrier is that ATSC 3.0 isn’t backwards compatible. Broadcasters will have to continue support for ATSC 1.0 until their new infrastructure is complete. On the other hand, ATSC 3.0 is designed to be extensible, so the backwards compatibility problem will not recur in the future.
According to the standards organizations, adoption of ATSC 3.0 should start this year. We’re skeptical that it will happen that quickly, but there’s no doubt that it will be an important technology to be aware of–and develop support for–in the next two years.