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ONE Media Moves Forward With “Radio Over ATSC 3”

New developments could fit 40 or 50 audio channels in a small slice of a NextGen station’s bandwidth

In a Sunday session of the NAB Show Broadcast Engineering & IT Conference, ONE Media Systems Engineer Liam Power will explore capabilities of the company’s proof-of-concept project showing how radio and other audio-only services could be delivered over ATSC 3. 

ONE Media is a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group, essentially Sinclair’s innovation lab. Much of its work centers around ATSC 3.0 or NextGen TV, a set of standards for television broadcasting created by the Advanced Television Systems Committee.

Mark Aitken is president of ONE Media and senior VP of advanced technology of Sinclair. He talked with us about the organization’s radio project.

Radio World: What should we expect to see at the NAB Show?

Mark Aitken: We’ve spent a lot of time on the subject of radio inside ATSC 3 because it’s a great value. There are a lot of radio folks looking for additional platforms for their content because of the sheer volume of competition out there. 

We’re getting closer to realizing such a product. People will see a clean, navigable version of our latest radio project on the ATSC booth. And Liam Power, the chief engineer involved with the project, is going to walk an audience through an understanding of ATSC 3 as it applies to audio-only services. 

We also see a need to evolve and provide additional clarity on the ATSC standard itself. A new project proposal — ATSC calls it an NPP — will be filed after the show with the support of us and others whom I can’t name yet. 

But the company submitting it is Fraunhofer, known to your readers in part because of Digital Radio Mondiale. Some of the technologies that are an integral part of the DRM profile are going to be brought into ATSC for standardization — most importantly, Fraunhofer’s highly efficient xHE-AAC audio codec. 

It allows high-quality voice at very low bit rates of around seven kilobits per second for talk radio, and the beginning of high-quality stereo music audio at bit rates from 24 kilobits per second and up. 

So a mixture of talk radio and high-quality stereo audio could occupy just a fraction of the bandwidth that’s available in an ATSC 3 broadcast station. It would be easy to offer local radio services and national services in a very small part of our spectrum.

RW: So is it correct to say that you’re envisioning a system that would allow audio-only channels to be included in any one of the proliferating number of ATSC 3 stations; and that audio could be heard on the specialized ATSC 3 receivers that are now in the market or pending?

Aitken: That’s correct. You know, AM is not the cleanest of radio spectrum bands — as was made well known by Tesla, for example, when Elon Musk professed they were going to drop AM radios from electric automobiles because of the impact of impulse noise. He was met with many choice words, because radio plays an extremely important role as the backbone of our emergency broadcast system. 

The UHF spectrum is not prone to the same kind of noise from electric motors. You can provide clean services unimpeded by a noisy RF environment.

We’ve also had a lot of complimentary feedback from ATSC 3 viewers about the free streaming radio services currently we offer. Many homes today no longer have radios, so having access to radio stations — local stations and a broad variety of other services — has been viewed as a real plus for viewers. 

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In the automobile, it’s not just about radio, it’s also about video-related services. A couple of the largest automotive manufacturers are beginning to test integration of ATSC 3 receivers into the automotive environment through their telematic control unit, or TCU, which now support software downloads and wireless transmission of big data files to an increasingly large number of automobiles. 

The idea that carmakers can put in a single receiver and get a multiplicity of services is extremely inviting to them. We can do software downloads, we could do enhanced GPS, we could provide mobile video services, and we could provide radio services. But integrating ATSC 3 into the dashboard of cars will be a longer-term proposition that takes several years.

Beta version of the Mobile Broadcast Radio App implemented via Android Auto to an automotive infotainment system.The receiver is a ‘Silicon Dust’ Flex 4K.

RW: And throughout this conversation, when you say “radio” you’re actually talking about “audio-only services” of any kind, yes? It could be services that ONE Media owns, or that it populates and provisions with syndication; or maybe you would partner with licensed broadcasters, but not necessarily just them —

Aitken: Yes. But whether we are actually running a service is irrelevant because the business we’re in is transmitting bits. If you knocked on our door and said, “Hey, I want to launch a radio service, can I rent bits from you,” we’d say, “Sure, let’s have that conversation.” At the same time, we think carrying local radio is good business from a public service standpoint. 

We’re non-discriminatory. We don’t necessarily believe that we’re the right people to run a radio service, but we’re building the hardware and software to do that. We see our future in selling bit capacity inside of our ATSC 3 signal, and we’re trying to maximize the number of services that can be offered for the lowest amount of bits.

Another screen on the beta version.

RW: What comes next?

Aitken: That would be a precommercial launch, a beta service. We’re working to get the standard prepared. We’ve been dealing with the standard longer than just about anybody else; we built the first demonstrator system of the full standard. But we’ve got to make it easy for audio-only services to be provided. 

Another reason is that it is effectively a mandate of the marketplace in India, which is pursuing this standard for their own purposes. 

RW: How many ATSC 3 stations are on the air now? 

Aitken: Over 60% of the U.S. public is covered by at least one over-the-air local TV station. It’ll probably be 80-plus percent by the end of this year. A number of large markets are starting to come on. It has been a cumbersome regulatory process to do the simplest of things to get ATSC 3 on the air. 

But when those large markets come online … Let’s say one radio station requires 25 kilobits, so four stations is 100 kilobits. Forty radio stations is 1 megabit — that’s 1 megabit offering 40 channels of stereo service! Put talk radio into the mix, and you’re looking at 50 channels. 

A megabit is just 4% of the ATSC 3 station’s bandwidth. So in our hypothetical example, you could bring every local radio station in any market to the consumer via ATSC 3.

RW: And what’s happening on the receiver side?

Aitken: There are a hundred or more models of television sets that support ATSC 3. The high-value products were first — big-name brands like Sony, Samsung, LG and Hisense. 

Several set-top box manufacturers demonstrated at CES and you’ll see some of them as commercial product at the NAB Show. 

Receivers are not embedded into the automobile yet, as I said, but that’s a longer-term integration.

BitPath a is joint venture of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Nexstar Media Group. It was set up to aggregate the bandwidth of multiple stations to be able to launch 3.0 services. But it’s also developing viable business models based on high-value bits, to scale it. They been working on several types of receiver design kits for the automotive side — enhanced GPS and other services that would ride on the spectrum. And there are now a handful of commercial companies making simple USB receivers. The ability for someone to experiment has opened up. 

So it’s just a matter of time.

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