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Under assault from the burgeoning OTT IP services, the staggering behemoth that is the US Television broadcast industry will soon deliver a major frontal offensive. And it's a real blockbuster! My sources tell me that on Wednesday, April 1, a gigantic US broadcasting consortium (consisting of NAB, ATSC, several major station groups, and the five major TV networks) will announce a comprehensive petition to the FCC and Congress to amend the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This amendment petition would allow broadcasters to use their spectrum to deliver premium subscription programming. Oh, but that's not all!

Seems that there are some encouraging advances in transmitter modulation ("physical layer") techniques that allow for more efficient multi-program frequency sharing, i.e. more than one carrier per channel with similar signal coverage. According to the plan, these techniques will be incorporated in the developing ATSC-3 standard to provide a very robust 4K (UHD-TV) "primary" stream and a somewhat less robust, but non-the-less HD capable "secondary" channel. So, the ATSC-3 idea is that, within each six megahertz channel, the primary program (presumably using COFDM) would provide top quality subscription content, and the secondary stream would carry conventional advertising supported content that would be transmitted in-the-clear (free). The secondary stream modulation mode has not been determined, but theoretically it must be something other than OFDM, such as (x)QAM or DPSK. Interactive return capability would be via either wired or wireless internet connection, but not required for secondary stream reception. Presumably, this means that (technically) very high quality programming would be possible completely immune to the quality-of service limitations of the internet. Oh, but that's not all!

The petition will call for all mobile communications devices sold in the US that are capable of internet connectivity also be capable of ATSC-3 "secondary" stream reception. The stated argument here is that the broadcast infrastructure is much more reliable in public emergency scenarios than is the wireless telecommunications system. And, further, it is traditionally "in the public interest" to assure that said public has free and unencumbered access to "their" spectrum. (Can you hear the drums beating and see the flags flying?) Interestingly, it is estimated by the consortium's technical sub-group that the manufacturing cost premium for upgrading mobile devices from only secondary stream capability to tune and decode both streams would be no more than 10% (not including the extra battery power required).

The transition plan outlined in the petition will call for a five year schedule, initially starting with the build-out of single frequency networks to assure adequate signal power density for robust mobile and indoor coverage. The petition consortium will collectively fund HDMI or USB connected "stick" units or set-top boxes to convert legacy receivers to the new service. And, of course, the petition will state most emphatically that the spectrum auction must be postponed to allow recalculation for channel assignments and coverage maps.

The consortium and the petition will be formally introduced to the broadcast industry at the upcoming NAB convention (April 11-16) and is anticipated to be the subject of intense discussions, both formally and informally. An understatement, no doubt.

"Build it and they will come" seldom works successfully as a marketing model, particularly when it's twenty years too late. But we will see what happens after April 1.


Posted by Ed Milbourn, April 1, 2015 10:20 AM

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About Ed Milbourn

After graduating from Purdue University with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Industrial Education in 1961 and 1963 respectively, Ed Milbourn joined the RCA Home Entertainment Division in 1963. During his thirty-eight year career with RCA (later GE and Thomson multimedia), Mr. Milbourn held the positions of Field Service Engineer, Manager of Technical Training and Manager of Sales Training. In 1987, he joined Thomson's Product Management group as Manager of Advanced Television Systems Planning, with responsibilities including Digital Television and High Definition Television Product Management. Mr. Milbourn retired from Thomson multimedia in December 2001, and is now a Consumer Electronics Industry consultant.