The Hybrid TV Vision: Is Common Sense Advancing?

You’ve been invited to a party. The invitation promises a horn of plenty filled with all your favorites (including the premium stuff) and also the individual favorites of your friends, family, neighbors and fellow citizens. In fact, everyone gets anything they want, at any time they want it, from this horn of plenty.

Sound too good to be true? Well, of course, it is. But the prognostication has been repeated so many times by so many prognosticators, it’s like an accepted fact: In the near future, all video programming will be delivered to consumers over the public internet so they can view whatever they want, whenever they want to view it.

The problem is the party can’t live up to its promise because the roads leading to it will be jammed. Traffic will come to a complete standstill. Of course, in the video-delivery scenario, the video content is what will get jammed for the same reason–aging infrastructure and inadequate capacity.

It all comes down to finite resources–namely the radio spectrum needed by anyone trying to wirelessly deliver content to viewers and existing wires (existing wires, of course, can be replaced with fatter pipes). Some delivery methods over radio frequency are more efficient than others. Unfortunately, the least efficient method–unicast wireless delivery–is a primary one attached to the promise of “anytime, anywhere” access. While there is, of course, wired delivery over the internet, the pipes are too small there as well.

It may be old fashioned, but broadcast–terrestrial, wire, satellites, etc.–is where these problems can begin to be solved. Even the most technically challenged can appreciate how one transmission reaching multiple points is more efficient than one transmission reaching one point.

Luckily, there are smart people like Professor Ulrich Reimers at the German Technische Universitaet Braunschweig and the folks behind the ATSC 3.0 TV standard who understand a hybrid solution that marries the efficiency of broadcasting with the convenience and addressability of unicasting is necessary to deliver on the “horn of plenty” promise.

At last week’s NAB conference, the hybrid solution came into sharper focus. ATSC 3.0 proponents emphasized how building an IP-core broadcast system, such as using IP transport streams instead of legacy MPEG-2 transport streams, allows the efficient wireless delivery of content that can be handed off to wi-fi networks and delivered to wi-fi-enabled devices.

The standard, because it begins with OFDM modulation that is used by the DVB-T, T2 and ISDB-T broadcasters, can afford additional efficiency gains through single-frequency network (SFN) configurations. The use of the latest video compression standard, HEVC, also makes more efficient use of available spectrum. Governments around the world are reallocating terrestrial TV broadcast spectrum to wireless service providers leaving OTA broadcasters with dwindling spectrum access. Terrestrial broadcasters have no choice but to innovate.

Sinclair-owned ONE Media, Gates Air, the ATSC organization, and other ATSC 3.0 proponents showed off the standard’s capabilities at NAB. The standard is on track to be finalized by year-end. Currently, all 3.0 capabilities are simply being tested. No commercial services are available, but a demo from ONE Media, a broadcast/unicast hybrid solution, highlighted interesting possibilities. Some applications demonstrated:

  • Hyper local ad insertion under certain configurations; can be done on the main screen receiving terrestrial signal or on wi-fi-enabled screens inside a wi-fi network
  • Ability to scale a single piece of content for various devices, resolutions and other factors; can be done by using an advanced profile within the HEVC compression standard
  • Helping to ease internet traffic by broadcasting content to CDNs for storing the access to specific “algorithmically” determined content in a kind of in-home CDN node
  • Ability to deliver a nationwide or regional radio and/or video service for automobiles

The above only cover the technically possible. They don’t address the business, competitive and policy possibilities. In fact, some of these ideas have been tested in the marketplace in the past and didn’t succeed. Was the technology not quite ready? Were the business models unsound? Was there a lack of consumer demand?

Maybe it was all of the above. But, today, demand is acute and bandwidth is inadequate. To feed the masses the preferred on-demand video diet, it can’t all be unicasted. Stay tuned.