ATSC 3.0 and anti-piracy: are DRM and encryption enough?

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Source: ATSC

An industry friend introduced me to the ATSC 3.0 Interest Group, which came into being in the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center at the 2019 NAB conference and trade show.   Since then, there have been several group meetings via teleconference, where advocates of the standard have presented ATSC 3.0 use cases.

For those who are not familiar with ATSC 3.0, it’s an industry-wide technology initiative by broadcasters and the consumer electronics industry to modernize broadcast television and make it interactive.  Trials are in advanced stages and the technology is on its way to commercial production deployment in US markets.  Some of its specifications are listed and linked later in this article.  If you’re in Europe, think of it as being similar to HbbTV.

What I thought it meant, which wasn’t right

As one who has been involved in IPTV for many years (e.g. the two-way interactive medium for the delivery of video and related audiovisual services over managed distribution and access networks, such as Telco and IP-enabled cable), my first reaction was to wonder why ATSC 3.0 – now branded as NextGen TV – was even necessary.

After all, why would someone want to add a physical antenna to a smartphone to receive over-the-air broadcast when a majority of video programming is now being delivered over Internet Protocol access to apps that we already know and love?

But that conclusion just reflected my bias and pre-misconceptions, and is not at all the point of ATSC 3.0.

ATSC 3.0 and IP video complement one another

First of all, ATSC 3.0, HbbTV, IPTV (the managed kind) and IP video (over the un-managed open Internet) are all designed to be interactive mediums.  The point of NextGen TV is to extend interactivity to over-the-air broadcast and reception.

Before you ask why you would still need over-the-air service, think about the last time you couldn’t get a mobile signal or your pay TV operator’s network failed.  Think about people in rural and underserved areas that don’t have reliable fixed or mobile broadband services.  All that’s left is broadcast.

Combine that with the fact that large swaths of the United States (and elsewhere) are rural areas that are subject to extreme weather, such as tornados.  Most people turn to local television and radio for the latest.

Other ATSC 3.0 interactive use cases include advertising and authentication for broadcast services.

Now that NextGen TV is on the path to deployment, companies are producing the aforementioned ATSC 3.0 antenna add-ons for mobile devices – but they are for signal testing by field engineers, not for consumers.  My thanks to Bonnie Beeman, CEO of Airwavz TV for setting me straight on that!

Securing NextGen TV against piracy

I’ve been attending the ATSC 3.0 Interest Group conference calls, mostly as a spectator, since last April.  But what motivated me to write this was a terrific February article in TV Technology by Mr Lynn Claudy, who is SVP of Technology for the NAB and Chairman of the ATSC Board of Directors.

The article explains the interlocking roles of Content Protection (ATSC guidelines for use of DRM), Signaling Security [signal delivery (A/331) and cryptographic signing (A/360)], Application security (CTA-CEB 32.9), and Studio-to-Transmitter security (A/324).

I would be tempted to add the ATSC 3.0 standard for video watermarking (A/335), which uses the top two scan lines to embed information by adjusting luma.  But, the specification also notes that its watermarks “are not intended to be a tamper-resistant or indelible watermark and … may be deliberately obliterated by an intermediary.”

Which, to me, says that ATSC 3.0’s watermarking approach is not designed with anti-piracy in mind, since pirates have become adept in attacking watermarks to remove embedded metadata.

I look forward to learning more.

Why it matters

Valuable content is distributed over television.  Signal theft happens.  No matter whether the video has been transported over a cable or Telco network, over direct-to-home satellite, or over the air.

By including DRM and signaling encryption, the NextGen TV initiative has some important foundational components for anti-piracy.

As I learn more from this community about ATSC 3.0’s abilities to fight piracy, I will provide updates in this space.

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