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

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Source: ATSC

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

For those not steeped in the lore of 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.  Advanced trials are well underway and the technology is on its way to commercial production deployment in US markets.  If you’re in Europe, think of it as similar to HbbTV.

What I thought it meant, which wasn’t right

As one who has been involved in IPTV (e.g. a two-way interactive medium for the delivery of video and related audiovisual services) for many years, 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?

But that conclusion just reflected my bias, and is not the point of ATSC 3.0.

ATSC 3.0 and IP video complement one another

First of all, both ATSC 3.0 and IP video are 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 are rural areas that are subject to extreme weather, such as tornados.  Most people turn to local television and radio for the latest.

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

I look forward to learning more.

Why it matters

Valuable content is distributed over television.  No matter whether it’s transported over a cable or Telco access network, over direct-to-home satellite, or over the air, signal theft happens.

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

I’ve begun to network within the ATSC 3.0 Interest Group community to ask questions and find my way to the subject matter experts. I’m looking forward to  learning more from this community and will provide updates in this space.  Hopefully not only to be in a position to communicate about them to my readers, but also to contribute to ATSC’s pursuit of anti-piracy.

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