ATSC 3.0 could usher in a new kind of TV bundle for cord-cutters

If you use an antenna to cut the cable cord today, you can at best hope to get the major broadcast networks, some public access channels, and a smattering of digital subnets airing mostly classic movies and TV shows.

Now, one broadcaster is claiming that it can deliver dozens more channels over the air by tapping into the next-generation broadcast standard known as ATSC 3.0—albeit not for free. Edge Networks, a broadcaster operating in Boise, Idaho, says it will offer a bundle of more than 80 news, sports, and entertainment channels over the air for less than $50 per month this summer. Edge Networks then plans to expand its service, called Evoca, to other markets in 2021, with a focus on small- to mid-sized U.S. cities.

“We think there are probably 50 million U.S. households that lack high-quality, competitive service,” Todd Achilles, Edge Networks’ president and CEO, said in an interview.

A lot of the details about Evoca are up in the air, including the specific channels it will offer, the other markets where it might launch, and the cost of its proprietary set-top box hardware. But for folks who want to replace their overpriced cable bundles and don’t want to deal with the vagaries of streaming (or internet service provider data caps), Edge Networks’ promises are intriguing. At the very least, they show that ATSC 3.0 could do more than just improve the channels we already get over the air today.

The over-the-air TV bundle

The idea that a broadcaster could pack 80 channels into the broadcast TV airwaves might seem far-fetched, but Achilles said ATSC 3.0 makes it possible. The broadcast spectrum is more efficient than the current ATSC 1.0 standard, and support for HEVC encoding means that each channel requires less bandwidth.

“Not only is the pipe bigger that you put over-the-air, but with the encoding efficiencies, you can put more content through that pipe,” Achilles said.

Achilles added that Edge Networks is combining multiple broadcast stations together, and applying some “secret sauce” to further increase capacity. As such, the company will require at least two broadcast stations operating in ATSC 3.0 to provide the Evoca service. The company already runs a pair of these stations in Boise, which is why it can start offering its TV bundle there over the summer. (If you’re wondering how a paid service can operate over public airwaves, ATSC 3.0 also allows for broadcasters to run paid services atop their core broadcasts.)

Other markets might pose a bigger challenge. The vast majority of existing broadcast stations still use ATSC 1.0, and if they want to adopt ATSC 3.0, they must partner with a separate station to simulcast their channels in the old standard through at least February 2023. While some stations might conceivably host the Evoca service once they’ve made the switch, Edge Networks could also launch entirely new ATSC 3.0 stations without the simulcasting requirement. In other words, there’s a lot to figure out in terms of broadcast logistics.

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