We know that the current ATSC system uses MPEG-2 for video compression. Over the past few years, codecs have advanced, and most newer video delivery systems are using tools from the MPEG-4 toolkit. That’s a technology that delivers approximately the same video quality at about half the bit rate. International standards groups are working on an even more advanced video compression standard called High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) that targets another 50 percent reduction in bit rate for the same quality. These advances in video coding are essential if you want to enable OTA delivery of higher resolutions such as 4K.
I can’t say whether 4K will be the next big thing in television viewing or whether it will go the way of 3-D, or perhaps be something in between. I do believe that many television viewers care about high-quality video, and as a broadcaster, I know I need to be prepared to deliver what my viewers want, and I don’t have that capability with today’s system. So it seems obvious that a next-generation standard would need to include the most advanced compression schemes available. Beyond that, the industry should look for a way that the system can evolve as compression technology continues to advance. What we really need is an upgradeable system that allows new, future codecs to be introduced without stranding receivers. This implies a system that allows receivers to be upgraded via software, a capability that many video playback devices already have.
Finally, a new standard could and should enable advanced services with the hope that these services will create value for users and enable new revenue streams for broadcasters and other participants.
The types of services envisioned — targeted advertising, synchronization with other applications (second screen or first screen), non-real-time delivery of content, etc. — have actually been talked about for a long time. Many of the ideas can be enabled by incorporating two things: a flexible data transport mechanism based on IP, and a flexible application execution environment on the receiver.
The good news for the broadcast industry is that television sets are already beginning to have those capabilities as part of Smart TV features, but we need to have a broadcast delivery that is able to take advantage of the features. Once the delivery and execution environment are set up, you have created fertile ground that will allow for creativity and flexibility in what advanced applications actually do. You don’t necessarily have to define exactly what all the applications are. That’s the vision that I believe our industry should have when it comes to a next-generation platform — one where we can innovate and evolve what we are doing.
One last point that overarches all these technical advancements is an idea that we need an “evolvable” standard so that we don’t end up in the same place again 20 years from now.
An evolvable standard is one where you can make changes as time goes on but not break existing services. It encompasses both forward and backward compatibility. You can choose to stay with an old version of the standard and still have devices both old and new continue to operate, or you can move to a newer feature set and not break existing receivers, albeit they may not be able to take advantage of the new features.
Much of the discussion among industry technical experts revolves around how to accomplish that. It sounds like an obvious idea, but it’s hard to come up with such a platform. The broadcast industry is hampered in two major areas where the telecommunication industry is not. First, we’re not vertically integrated. That is, we don’t control both the network and the user equipment. Second, we don’t have two-way communication with user equipment, so we can’t “negotiate” the communication link. Those challenges will be hard to overcome, but it will be important to do so if we want to make sure we don’t repeat history with a next-generation platform.
The next-generation broadcast platform that I hope to see will have all those characteristics: an advanced and highly flexible radio link that will allow me to deliver the maximum bits in challenging conditions; a video compression system that allows me to send the highest quality video that is available on the market; a platform that allows for new and innovation applications; and a defined path that allows for change so we’re not stuck with the same technologies forever. I’m happy that so many of my colleagues in the industry see this same possible future and are working together to make it happen.
—Brett Jenkins is VP CTO, LIN Media.