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Next Gen TV Could Be Another Tool in Public Safety Arsenal

Next Gen TV, or Advanced Television Systems Committee standard, has the potential to enhance communication for EMS and fire agencies still reliant on 60-year-old technology.

In this era of highly advanced technology, some fire and EMS agencies still use paging systems to communicate about incidents. The communication is often sequential in nature and not the best avenue for sharing urgent information.

That’s what prompted the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NC DIT) in partnership with the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina and UNC-TV Public Media, have embarked on a project they hope will change that.

With the advent of ATSC 3.0/Next Gen TV, which is based on Internet protocol and merges broadcast TV with the Internet, researchers hope they can channel more information simultaneously through broadcast television to give first responders more real-time data, video and other information, including alerts, more efficiently.

In the late 1990s, there was a transition from analog broadcasting to digital, and all analog broadcasts ended in 2009 with the transition to digital television using the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) standard. ATSC 3.0 is an evolution of that standard.

“Next Gen TV is kind of the digital evolution of broadcast TV,” said Gerry Hayes, CEO and founder of the Wireless Research Center. “ATSC 3.0 will provide content in less bandwidth, so not only will standard-definition TV broadcast be made to be HD, the bandwidth footprint will be smaller and will be able to have the same content in a smaller part of the pipe.”

Hayes said one of the first applications of Next Gen TV could be replacing the pagers that some first responders use, or enhancing their efficiency. With Next Gen TV, the transmission is simultaneous, and specific data, including weather mapping and video content, could be targeted to certain receivers.

“Like in an emergency response situation, a lot of high-data content can be pushed out and targeted to specific people and large groups of people if needed,” Hayes said.

Red Grasso is a former firefighter who is now director of the First Responder Emerging Technologies Program for NC DIT. He explained the pager system as 60-year-old technology, usually 100 watts coming from a 200-to-300-foot tower, covering maybe a county or two and operated on the local level.

“Broadcast television is hundreds or thousands or a million times greater in power with 10 times greater height that is going to have a bigger footprint and much better building penetration and better overall coverage than today’s public safety analog paging systems,” Grasso said.

For the concept to work, there has to be a robust connection between the 911 call center and the paging system and the television station that will be transmitting it. It won’t go over the Internet. It might be virtual private network, or a direct data connection, but it ends up being delivered to a device such as a pager or a chip or smartphone.

Grasso said there are three or four experimental ATSC 3.0 licenses on the air and one happens to be in North Carolina and thus the ability to experiment. So far, that’s what this project is.
“Right now, it’s not ready to be sold,” he said.

“I can describe to you what the vision might be, but that will be influenced by the for-profit company that picks it up to market it.”