Will IP Transform the Broadcast Industry?

It might be argued that the difference between new video-service providers and the old ones (broadcast via cable, satellite and terrestrial) is that the new ones are simply using a different pipe (Internet) to get content into homes and to personal devices.

This is true to a point but, of course, overly simplistic. There are two main characteristics of IP distribution that set it apart from legacy broadcast systems: the ability to deliver signals to all classes of devices; and, a one-to-one physical connection with each viewer that opens the door to their data. Broadcasters don’t have these tools in their tool box and they need them.

That’s why the broadcast community (especially terrestrial broadcasting) is in an all-out sprint to reinvent how it distributes TV so that IP elements are inserted at the content-preparation level and carried through to reception and, finally, handed off to other IP-enabled devices. This is the promise of the new ATSC 3.0 digital terrestrial TV set of standards, which recently received a “thumbs up” from the newly minted U.S. FCC Chairman. Of course, 3.0 is developed so that broadcasters can deliver the best high-quality audio and video experience with all the ultra HD bells and whistles. But it is the flexibility, addressability and greater device reach (not the pretty pictures) that broadcasters must have to effectively compete in today’s media landscape. As an aside, there are additional important benefits the new standard delivers, but for the purposes of this blog, we concentrate on the impact of IP integration.

If IP is the magic bullet, why not just distribute every TV series, movie, live sporting event and documentary over the public Internet? This is, of course, a rhetorical question but one that illustrates why a system that uses both broadcast and unicast may relieve some of the considerable pressure on the already over-stuffed public Internet and cellular networks, while incorporating the conveniences of on-demand access on just about any device.

Wireless video transmissions require spectrum use, and technological advances delivering more efficient ways to use it have been slow in coming as we’ve written in this space before. To date, the main solution to this problem is to auction off more spectrum access to mobile broadband service providers so they can distribute the massive amounts of video consumed daily and governments can put the money in their treasuries. But the willingness of mobile service providers to pay billions of dollars for the right to use more spectrum may have peaked. The latest spectrum auction by the U.S. government—the Broadcast Incentive Auction—will bring in less than half as much as the 2015 AWS-3 blockbuster auction, which brought in about $44 billion. This time around, the wireless service providers didn’t reach as deep into their pockets (about $20 billion) for spectrum in the 600 MHz band, despite its attractive propagation properties that promote greater penetration into buildings.

If the wireless carriers are less inclined to solve bandwidth problems by paying top-shelf prices for spectrum access, why wouldn’t it make sense to modernize broadcast systems so that programs prepped for subsequent IP distribution can be efficiently broadcasted (especially bandwidth intensive programming that commands large audiences) and distributed to TV receivers and IP-enabled devices?

Sounds sensible? Sensible or not, it won’t be easy. The engineers have designed the technical system to do it, but now the industry’s top executives and operations people must move quickly to make it happen. And some of the biggest dogs in the U.S. broadcaster park (Sinclair and Nexstar) have publicly stated they plan to transition to the new system (other big dogs are conspicuously silent). That will require significant capital expenditures, the will and patience to play the long game, and even a cultural shift within the industry. Just last week, Imagine Communications published a paper broaching the subject of how seasoned broadcast engineers can learn to navigate the new language, technology and people of IT. Cultural shifts are never easy.

The idea of integrating more spectrally-efficient broadcast transmissions with the one-on-one addressability of IP transmissions seems obviously sensible. The transformation the broadcast industry must undergo to accomplish that, however, probably won’t feel sensible at all.