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What’s the future of terrestrial transmission?

Rohde & Schwarz's Mohammed Aziz Taga argues linear broadcasting still has a strong future, but it makes sense for broadcasters to seek revenues from new opportunities which can piggy-back onto that infrastructure

While all the hot talk is around streaming services, it is unarguable that linear broadcasting remains popular. The best market predictions seem to be that, while streaming will gain viewers (and revenue), traditional linear television will remain stable for the foreseeable future. 

Statista, to take just one respected forecaster, suggests a CAGR of 0.54 per cent in the linear audience to 2027. Enders Analysis, to take another, says linear viewing will still represent 61 per cent of all video consumed by the same date.

Within the linear market, terrestrial transmission also remains popular. Transmitter networks are well established, and the technology is mature and reliable. With modern transmitter designs offering vastly improved power efficiency, the cost – in electricity and in carbon emissions – of running a typical transmitter network is set to fall by 50 per cent or more.

The latest generation power amplification components in new circuit designs are the primary contributors to the dramatic increase in efficiency. At the same time, the use of software-defined architectures means that transmitters are readily upgraded, for example to support a new format or codec. Compare this with, say, the nine-figure sum of launching a new satellite.

What this means is that, not only can the transmitter be reprogrammed to run on a different channel, it can instantly adapt to new formats, codecs and carriers. If your business case calls for a shift from HD on MPEG-4 to 4k Ultra HD on HEVC, that can readily be done.

There is another potential opportunity here, which can generate new revenue streams for the network operator. They can take the terrestrial transmitter’s capability of addressing every location within range and apply it to new broadcast applications.

The first area of interest is in delivering live content to any device. People on the move want to watch sport or entertainment events, or other favourite programmes on the tablet or phone they have in their pocket. The accepted wisdom is that this can be achieved through cellular telephony, at the expense of taking up limited bandwidth in the cell and potentially variable reception when the contention gets too high.

Today there is a new format, 5G Broadcast. This is a part of the 5G cellular specification and is clearly codified so is ready to run. What is important, though, is that it runs separate from the cellular network and unicast data services. Users can receive it on a device without a SIM. Alternatively, they can receive it and still have data and voice access, simultaneously, without affecting each other.

Network providers could broadcast to a wide area, just as they do with conventional channels and could also provide pop-up services to cover local areas. That could be a fan service in and around a sports stadium, say, so everyone could see replays and highlights packages simultaneously, without using cellular bandwidth. At big music festivals they could broadcast close-ups of the band so it would not matter how far back the users are in the crowd.

The next extension in thinking is that network operators could offer multicast delivery of data which is nothing to do with video. Existing transmitter infrastructures could deliver data to multiple internet of things end points, for instance.

Modern cars depend upon data for systems automation and geographical information systems. Network providers could update all connected cars in real time with traffic conditions, weather, road works and more. And again, multicast transmission saves cellular data bandwidth.

The ability to provide up to the minute information to autonomous and connected cars could open up new functionality. Head-up displays could show suggestions and directions for food, electric charging stations or parking, including space availability in real time. That is just the potential for automotive applications: as we are all aware, the IoT is everywhere.

The message for terrestrial broadcast network operators is that there are continuing opportunities, including new potential revenue streams. The heavy infrastructure is already in place, and it is capable of radiating 5G Broadcast signals. Linear broadcasting still has a strong future, but it makes sense to seek revenues from new opportunities which can piggy-back onto that infrastructure, and take advantage of the high availability, convenience and coverage that terrestrial networks provide.