Local public television stations use their broadcast spectrum to provide many services, utilizing a variety of digital technologies, to serve their communities. Such technologies include high definition (HD), standard definition (SD) multicasting, and datacasting. Public broadcasters are excited about the upcoming Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval of final rules for the next generation broadcast standard, ATSC 3.0 or Next Gen, which is Internet Protocol (IP) based and will allow the stations more spectrum capacity to use to provide more services, including interactive audience offerings.

Public broadcasters are charged with the mission of serving all viewers in their local communities, regardless of location or ability to pay for such services. Public broadcasters critically depend on the spectrum they utilize to deliver free over-the-air educational television services to these communities. The analog-to-digital transition greatly expanded these services – both over-the-air television services and datacasting services with vital distance learning and public safety/homeland security applications – that local public television stations offer their communities.

Public television stations provide high-quality services across the entire country, often providing the sole television services in very rural and remote areas.  This is especially critical when one considers the essential public safety role that stations play in alerting and warning their communities, as well as their partnerships with local public safety groups and first responders which often utilize the public television network to communicate with each other and the public.

Public television licensees make exemplary use of the broadcast spectrum in serving their communities, generally creating more “bang for the MHz” than any other category of broadcasters.  With “cord cutting,” over-the-air (OTA) viewing to the exclusion of a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) is growing again (now 22.4 million households according to research by GfK Media). Market-by-market estimates by Nielsen show that OTA percentage varies by an order of magnitude across markets. The GfK data also show that minorities and younger consumers are more likely to rely on broadcasting.

Local public television stations provide a secure, data-centric network using existing broadcasts to deliver encrypted video, files, alerts and other data to public safety recipients via datacasting. Datacasting is the process of delivering internet protocol (IP) data over a traditional broadcast television signal. Critical information – such as encrypted live videos, files, alerts, and other data – can be sent securely, in real time via public television broadcast spectrum to unlimited numbers of public safety recipients to enhance preparedness and response efforts and help keep Americans safe during emergencies.

This capability essentially turns public television stations into a new wireless data network. TV sets do not display IP data, so the data is invisible to traditional television viewers. And additionally, all datacasting content is encrypted so that access is restricted to authorized users.

Television’s native one-to-many delivery model uses bandwidth very efficiently. One Mbps per second (1/20th of a station’s current digital capacity) can deliver one live video stream, large files, alerts and other data to an unlimited number of users. Additional video streams serving separate end users would only require 500 Kbps of additional bandwidth per stream.

In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Science and Technology conducted two successful pilots in Houston and Chicago working with local public television stations to utilize public television’s datacasting technology to deliver encrypted video and data to a multitude of public safety end-users.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory released reports on these pilots pointing to the highly effective nature of the tests with officers participating in the tests reporting “that datacasting provided video and audio quality far exceeding current capability (which is frequently non-existent).” One officer reported that “he considered the ability to receive high-quality video in particular to be a life-saving feature.”

The technology meshed well with existing technology and operations, and proved to enhance interoperability between different end-users. Public safety personnel involved in the pilot were also impressed with the ease of installation of the equipment and ease of use, even with very little training.

ATSC 3.0
Public television stations will soon be adopting the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, which will bring much-enhanced video and sound quality and a dynamic internet protocol-based platform to broadcasting. This new Next Gen standard will enable constant innovation, greatly improved capabilities to provide mobile services and significant advances in spectral efficiency, enabling public television stations to offer more services and derive more revenue from the 6 MHz spectrum assigned to each station. Next Gen will allow stations to provide more programming and community engagement services, as well as grow more revenue.

Next Generation television, using IP technology, robust modulation advancements and enhanced compression, offers extraordinary flexibility and opportunities for broadcasters. Public television stations are eager to embrace non-broadcast business opportunities such as the delivery of encrypted and targetable IP data, including video and other large files, over a wireless IP delivery network that is natively multicast and not subject to congestion or delay, like the television signals carrying it.

Among the potential enhancements to public television services afforded by Next Gen are public safety services, including FirstNet support and backup facilities to dramatically improve system reliability and to immediately reach rural and remote areas; crisis support by delivering targeted video, building blueprints and other files to First Responders in the field, including deeply within heavily structured buildings; localized AMBER Alerts with rich media information on victims, suspects, location and vehicles; and weather and disaster emergency notification with localized event mapping, evacuation routes and emergency advice in multiple languages.

Stations may also provide education datacasting services, to allow student learning on a customized level, and to supply teachers, students and homeschooled children with course materials, lectures, class discussions and virtual field-trips. Training programs for government and non-government entities including police, fire, medical and business can be offered. GED education services, pioneered by Kentucky Educational Television and available for licensing to other public stations through KET’s FastForward initiative, can reach hundreds of thousands more second-chance learners through enhanced spectrum capacity. Workforce development is a growing specialty of public television, and Vegas PBS is already the largest provider of such services in the State of Nevada.