Top Techs Have No Desire To Lose Spectrum
While the FCC may want broadcasters to surrender some or all of their spectrum back to the commission for auction to broadband wireless providers, a panel of top broadcast TV tech experts says “no way.”
That topic, along with plenty of other hot-button issues — including spectrum re-packing, channel sharing, 4K/ultra high-definition acquisition and delivery, AFD (active format description), unbundling of subscription TV packages, software defined networks, IP broadcasting and ATSC 3.0 — were explored at the annual Broadcaster Panel at the recent HPA Tech Retreat in Indian Wells, Calif.
A highlight of the HPA conference for many attendees, the panel is a one-hour discussion featuring the top technology executives from major broadcast networks and TV station groups.
Moderated by Ericsson’s Matthew Goldman, this year’s panel featured Anthony Caruso from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Bob Seidel from CBS, Dave Seigler from Cox Broadcasting, Richard Friedel from Fox, Eric Wolf from PBS and Mark Aitkens from Sinclar Broadcast Group.
Starting with the topic of spectrum repacking, sharing and multicasting, broadcasters were in general agreement that although there may be some stations that want to cash out in the auctions, it does not make sense to permanently give up spectrum that might be used later for a variety of services delivering everything from mobile to 4K.
PBS’s Wolf raised the point that although today’s encoders make channel sharing a viable option, advances in technology cannot solve the thorny contractual issues of how a for-profit station can share spectrum with a nonprofit PBS station, or whether it makes commercial sense to do so at all.
“Channel sharing is a reasonable option for people to look at, but at the end of the day management has to look at this and say we can take a one-time infusion of cash from the auction and give up forever some portion of our spectrum, which is our bread and butter, and forgo a lot of future options,” Wolf said.
Siegler agreed, saying that Cox sees surrendering spectrum as limiting the future, and that the company has “no interest” in turning over any of its spectrum.
Sinclair’s Aitken went further: “No matter what happens, if the next generation of broadcasting is planned using legacy ATSC 1.0 and MPEG-2 standards, everyone will be ‘half of a broadcaster’ because what you can do within the limitations of ATSC 1.0 is only half of what broadcasters are capable of doing.”
Aitken added that “any consideration of channel sharing would have to go hand-in-hand with the notion of advancing broadcasting to the next-generation broadcast platform,” which he described as being all IP-based and capable of supporting both mobile and fixed services, which Sinclair believes will be vital to the livelihood of broadcasters in the future.
According to Seidel, the issue comes down to quality for CBS, so channel sharing is out of the question. The network always strives to deliver maximum quality, so until very recently CBS has used its entire 19.3 Mbit/s for HD. Recent advances in compression have enabled CBS to lower the bitrate slightly, freeing up approximately 1.5Mbit/s for a subchannel.
THE FUTURE OF 4K
The industry’s top techs were also in broad agreement on 4K — delivering it over the air is not a priority.
“We’ve done a lot of testing of 4K in our labs, and you know what, it produces the best HD pictures we’ve ever seen,” said Fox’s Richard Friedel. “We think there is some there is some viability for 4K sets for consumers, but that’s not to suggest that we will be broadcasting 4K any time soon.”
Aitken put it more bluntly: “4K is not going to happen for broadcasting until ESPN says so.”
Seidel says CBS is a fan of 4K — for acquisition. He described how CBS/CW program delivery specifications include separate elements for acquisition and delivery. “On the acquisition side, our philosophy has always been that we want to maintain the highest possible quality levels so that we ensure the residual asset value of that content.”
Accordingly, for the past two years the CBS/CW specifications have allowed for acquisition in 4K, although this is not mandatory today. “Having an edited 4K master on the shelf is going to add to the asset value in the future, no matter how it’s distributed.”
On the sports side, CBS and others have been using 4K for acquisition (CBS used six 4K cameras at the 2013 Super Bowl), and using this content to extract HD content, as well as for super slow-mo replays. 4K/UHD will continue to be used in this way for sports productions.
It was Dave Siegler from Cox Media, whose parent company is also a major cable operator, who expressed disappointed in the downgraded signal that cable companies deliver to the home with compression, and asked rhetorically whether 4K delivered to the home would look as HD should.