Instead of rushing home to catch the finale of your favorite cable TV show, you soon might be able to tune in on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Thanks to a new suite of standards, broadcasters will be able to provide customers with access to live programming anytime and anywhere, and on multiple devices. They will also offer interactivity as well as better sound and picture quality.
These are some of the features made possible by ATSC 3.0, a suite of standards for digital terrestrial broadcasting, authorized for the United States in November by the Federal Communications Commission. The suite incorporates the first IP-based broadcast standard, allowing broadcasting companies to simultaneously transmit content over the airwaves and the Internet.
ATSC stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that develops voluntary technical standards for digital television.
“When we started developing these standards, we decided to start from scratch instead of simply adding on to the previous version,” says IEEE Senior Member Mark Richer, president of the ATSC. “The result is 20 standards that incorporate several new technologies. These standards are flexible enough to accommodate applications that haven’t even been developed yet.”
South Korea has already adopted the standards, taking advantage of many of their features during this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where there are already ATSC 3.0–compatible televisions and receivers. In the United States, televisions do not yet comply with ATSC 3.0, but converters—gateway devices that can be incorporated in existing home-entertainment systems to receive ATSC 3.0 broadcasts—are expected to be available soon.
HAVE IT YOUR WAY
ATSC 3.0 offers broadcasters the sort of flexibility that viewers have grown accustomed to with streaming services including Amazon Prime and Netflix. Soon, for example, viewers will be able to catch a major sports event by tuning in on their tablet while, say, traveling on a train.
Because the standard is IP-based, broadcasters could offer apps to go along with TV shows, making the experience more interactive. Certain programs might come with an app that launches a trivia game about characters in a sitcom, for example, or provides in-depth information about the subject of a documentary.
IEEE Fellow Rich Chernock, chair of the ATSC’s Technology Standards Group, TG3, notes that the standards expand the potential for hyperlocal advertising. Broadcasters could deliver commercials about stores and events in viewers’ immediate area if the viewers allow the broadcaster to detect their location.
Having access to viewers’ location also would allow broadcasters to issue an emergency alert for a small area, says IEEE Life Fellow James O’Neal, editor of IEEE Broadcast Technology. He is a member of The Institute’s editorial advisory board.
“Let’s say you’re at home during a severe storm and a tornado is about to touch down near your neighborhood,” O’Neal says. “Your ATSC 3.0 television would automatically ‘wake up’ and play an audio alert and show a map detailing the areas in the tornado’s path and let you know what to do next.”
TRUE TO LIFE
TV picture and sound quality has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past decade. Until ATSC 3.0, however, broadcasters have been unable to transmit programs that take advantage of all the advances.
Many modern televisions have a high dynamic range (HDR), which extends the number of shades of black, white, and gray that can be transmitted and displayed, as well as improves the contrast ratio (how bright or dark the images can appear), according to CNET. HDR also offers extended colors, allowing a much broader palette to be transmitted.
Until the ATSC 3.0 standards were approved, companies were unable to broadcast in HDR.
ATSC 3.0 also will let broadcasters offer immersive audio—another feature that can make content seem truer to life. “If you have a surround-sound system, and you’re watching a live broadcast of a fireworks display, the sound of the fireworks will emanate from above the TV,” O’Neal says.
“It’s a vast improvement over traditional channel-based audio, in which sound is directed at different quadrants of the room,” Chernock says. “Now you can have object-based audio, in which sound comes from different elements on the screen. For example, if you’re watching a football game, you can choose to listen to either the announcer from the home team or the away team—or you can tune them out entirely and just listen to the sound of the crowd.”
ON THE HORIZON
Chernock, Richer, and O’Neal agree that it will take time for TV manufacturers to catch up with the new standards, especially because they’re voluntary. That is in contrast to the 2009 transition from analog to digital television—in which U.S. broadcasters were ordered to stop transmitting analog signals by a specific date.
“Once U.S. broadcasters begin putting ATSC 3.0–compatible programming on the air and show what it can do, the consumer electronics industry will soon follow,” Chernock says. This year more than two dozen U.S. broadcast companies plan to test ATSC 3.0–compatible content. Companies in Canada and Mexico are also getting on board, Chernock says.
“By next year’s CES, I think we’ll start to see numerous ATSC 3.0 TVs and receivers on the showroom floor,” Richer predicts.
In the meantime, the ATSC, IEEE, and other organizations are working to educate consumers and broadcasters about the standards. IEEE Educational Activities, for example, is partnering with the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers on a series of online courses. They’re scheduled to start in June.
This article is part of our March 2018 special issue on the future of television.