Datacasting Capabilities Increase with New Public-Safety Benefits
Tuesday, September 03, 2019 | Comments
A new broadcast television standard, technical advancements and pilot projects that test new capabilities and applications are providing public television stations more ways to support public safety through datacasting.

Datacasting uses public TV broadcast infrastructure and spectrum to supplement traditional public-safety communications and send encrypted data streams to designated public-safety personnel to assist during emergency operations.

Datacasting isn’t intended as a replacement for other public-safety technologies but instead as a complementary technology to help get critical information, such as building blueprints or video, into the hands of first responders. For example, because of the nature of broadcast signals compared with cellular signals, the technology can greatly assist public-safety users in rural areas where cellular signals are not readily available, said Patrick Butler, president and CEO of America’s Public Television Stations (APTS).

APTS, a nonprofit organization focused on helping public TV stations provide essential public services to Americans, partnered with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) to test different datacasting applications in pilot projects throughout the U.S.

In Indiana, a local public TV station partnered with a local school district and tested datacasting during a simulated active shooter event. During the event, the TV station sent live video and other critical information to first responders to assist them in responding to and ending the active shooter situation.

APTS and local public TV stations are also partnering with state government entities and organizations. In California, APTS partnered with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) to use datacasting for sending early alerts for earthquakes.

Five public TV stations in California have rolled out the technology, which is connected to the U.S. Geological Survey’s ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system. When the system receives warning of an earthquake, the public TV stations broadcast a warning that can prepare public-safety agencies before the full fury of the earthquake hits.

During an earthquake, the doors of a firehouse may become stuck when the earthquake hits, preventing firetrucks from getting out, or a hospital may lose power, putting patients at risk, said Lonna Thompson, executive vice president and chief operating officer for APTS. The datacasting system can automatically send an alert to a receiver at the firehouse to instantly open the firehouse doors or to the hospital to trigger an auxiliary generator, allowing better response to the earthquake.

In testing, the datacasting system has reduced the alert time from 30 seconds to less than 3 seconds. This decreased time helps greatly in preparing public-safety units before the first or subsequent aftershocks occurs, Thompson said.

The receivers haven’t been placed at firehouses or hospitals yet but are being tested by first responders, who are receiving live warnings from the ShakeAlert system, Thompson said. APTS and CalOES are also working on an agreement to expand the system to other public TV stations in California.

Advances in Datacasting
As APTS, its member stations and government agencies across the country test more applications for datacasting, technology advances are improving the capabilities of the technology.

In its initial applications, devices capable of receiving datacasting data have been limited to laptops and similar devices. However, a new dongle allows mobile devices, such as phones and tablets to receive the signal now, said Mark O’Brien, president and chief technology officer (CTO) of SpectraRep, which assists public TV stations with setting up datacasting.

While the dongles are not yet commercially available, successful tests of data transmission to portable devices have occurred in areas where the new Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) 3.0 standard has rolled out.

“It’s real, it’s working, it’s live,” said John McCoskey, chief operating officer (COO) for SpectraRep.

The eventual goal is to have the datacasting chip integrated directly into the devices, O’Brien said. That integration will require working with device manufacturers. O’Brien declined to comment on a potential timeline for that integration.

Enabling the transmission to mobile devices is the new ATSC 3.0 standard, which is being rolled out in markets across the nation. Unlike the 2009 analog to digital TV transition, the FCC has not mandated that TV stations switch to the ATSC 3.0 standard, so each station can transition at its own pace.

Public and commercial TV stations are working to aggressively roll out the standard because of the benefits the new technology offers to both TV and other services, such as datacasting. APTS hopes to see about 75 – 80% of the population covered by ATSC 3.0 by 2020, Butler said.

For datacasting specifically, the new TV standard offers a variety of benefits. The new TV standard is a blend of both broadcast and broadband technologies, which will make it more interoperable with other technology used by public safety, Butler said.

Additionally, the new standard is more efficient in its spectrum use, meaning that stations use less of their allocated spectrum for broadcasting, leaving more spectrum for applications such as datacasting, Butler said.

Learn more about datacasting and some of the piloted use cases here.

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