Madison, Wis. — So, tell me, why are we so down on terrestrial TV broadcast? There seems to be a growing consensus that broadcasting isn't just irrelevant but obsolete.
Part of me agrees. But another -- perhaps nostalgic but maybe just skeptical of the conventional wisdom -- wonders if it's all true.
Many of us aren't really pondering the future of terrestrial TV broadcast, given that a large-screen TV set in the living room is no longer the only place we watch video. Most TV-viewers get programs not via terrestrial but through cables, satellites, or broadband.
There are those in the media, many in the engineering community and even the FCC who seem more interested in the future for higher-speed WiFi, LTE broadcast and emerging 5G.
Obviously, I'm one of them.
That said, I've begun thinking a lot more about the future of terrestrial TV broadcast, since the Futurecast field tests I happened to witness earlier this week in Madison, Wis. Futurecast is one of the 10 proposals currently on the table as a new physical layer for the emerging ATSC 3.0 standard.
If the upcoming ATSC 3.0 standard was all about broadcasting Ultra High Definition TV (and 3D TV), I'm pretty sure I would have walked away unimpressed. If that's all there was, it's the same old pitch, pigeonholing broadcast TV as just a medium for prettier pictures.
But if the future of TV broadcast – IP-based – can deliver programming to the home, and mobile content to LTE devices, as some suggested, broadcasters might yet change the broadband landscape.
Video is predicted to occupy "80 to 90% of all IP traffic by 2017," Rick Doherty, research director at The Envisioneering Group, pointed out.
Earlier this week, during a keynote speech at SMPTE 2014 Industry Luncheon in Hollywood, Mark Aiken, vice president of Advanced Technology at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, criticized broadcast and TV engineers for not being vigilantly tuned to the politics and business climate in the world where they live.
Aiken said in his speech, "Engineers believe the technology is driving the business." He added, "We as engineers are not taking a broad look at the surroundings… and taking the initiative to do the kinds of things to determine where broadcasting is going. …4K, HDR, immersive sound... we have all these beautiful potential entrapments of a consumer. But without understanding the business objective, there's little to be gained."
During the field tests in Madison, I heard broadcast engineers worrying about the FCC's upcoming spectrum auction. They complained that the current FCC chairman, whom they view as biased toward mobile broadband, is letting the wireless industry poach their broadcast spectrum.
Aiken, in his speech, said it more succinctly: "We believe broadcasting is being marched, quite literally, to the cliff."
If so, my next question is what should they do about it.
I know that broadcasters, over the years, have entertained lots of different ideas for changing the status of linear TV broadcast. They've tried everything from interactive TV to Internet TV and mobile TV.
But as Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, told me, "The track record is not so good for broadcasting (as we now know it) to deliver advanced services that consumers will want."
Broadcasters like Sinclair are doing the right things to try to keep over-the-air services competitive, but history suggests that it's a slow, political process, and time isn't on broadcasters' side. It took ten years from when the FCC formally started planning for HD until both the infrastructure and HDTV receivers started to be widely deployed. Five of those ten years were spent just getting to the Grand Alliance that arrived at a single ATSC standard, and even after that, companies completely outside the broadcasting industry threw monkey wrenches into the standardization process. There are ten ATSC 3.0 standard proposals on the table, so we'll definitely have a long period of public comments, politics and responses to FCC analyses, just like we had with ATSC 1.0. Meanwhile, progress in mobile technology and telecommunication will go on separately, not waiting for whatever the FCC does. That's why broadcasters really don't have control of their own destinies.
Devices that combine broadcasting+android or broadcasting+tablets do exist. But they aren't making waves - maybe demand is low.
But people prefer to watch most content on demand, and content is going there. On demand delivery is affordable enough and will be more so. At least as far as i can tell,ATSC 3.0 won't compete with the net on on demand. It all seems to be driven by business needs.