The association’s new chief technology officer’s marching orders include fostering technology that will ensure that broadcasters can keep pace with all the other digital media. Part of that is helping to create standard for the next generation of TV.
The NAB may finally be getting serious about developing the technology upon which the broadcasting business is based.
Within the past year, it voted to set aside $3 million a year to establish and run an NAB Lab and, for the first time, it hired a chief technology officer.
He is Kevin Gage, who has spent his career involved with digital media and business development, mainly at Warner Bros., but also for two years at NBC Universal.
Gage’s marching orders go beyond helping to shape NAB’s policy position. They also require that he advance the technology so that broadcasters can keep pace with all the other digital media. Among his duties is running the lab.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Gage concedes that for now the lab will not be a place you can visit. It will be more of an investment fund, he says, seeking out the best ideas for improving the broadcast media and nurturing them with infusions of cash.
High on Gage’s agenda for TV is developing a next-generation broadcast standard that will allow stations to push more and better service their channels. It might even be a world standard, he says.
Prospects for broadcasting could be dimmed if the FCC degrades the TV band as it seeks to squeeze excess spectrum out of it and auction it off to wireless carriers. Another of his jobs, Gage says, is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
An edited transcript:
What’s the mission of the NAB Labs?
We believe that in radio and television, as the one-to-many wireless broadcaster, we have a game to play here. We have a very good system that has been in this place for a very long, long time, but we’re now in a situation where we can start innovating and using new technologies that are out there to be able to connect with the consumer in ways that we have never connected before. That’s really what the lab is there to do — to foster that innovation.
So will the labs be a distinct organization with its own staff?
Eventually, it could. Right now, it’s going to be more virtual, where we’re partnering with others in the marketplace to help get things moving. I am trying to manage it more as an incubator start-up in which we’re trying to keep our physical cap ex costs as low as possible so we can put as many resources as we can into the actual innovation.
NAB has had this effort called FastRoads, which funds outside tech projects like Syncbak. Does it get absorbed into the lab initiative?
Yes, it does.
So part of your mission will be to hand out checks — to make investments — for outside R&D?
To make investments, correct.
What are some of the projects you have in mind for the labs?
In radio, we’re working on an AM engineering study that we kicked off in the last fiscal year, as well as HD radio in FM. And then on the TV side, we’re fostering innovation with mobile DTV, and we are moving forward to potentially a new broadcast standard. What would be the ramifications and the benefits of being able to go to something different in the future?
The ATSC is already working on that. They call it ATSC 3.0. What would be the benefits of moving to a new standard?
I think it’s going to be flexibility. It will be able to enhance what we’re currently doing today in our ability to deliver megabits to the consumer in a way that broadcast is uniquely able to do. It scales incredibly well and so a new standard would increase our efficiency on delivering content. And if we can increase that efficiency, that means there’s more services that we can provide to the consumer as well as better services such as ultra high definition.
3D as well. That’s going to be a business-owner decision, but if you move to a model in which you’re thinking about delivering bits, they can decide what they want to deliver with the bits.
What do you mean by flexibility?
When you look at it today, we have a standard that’s very robust, but it’s not very flexible. I can switch between standard def and high def, but if I wanted to go from 3D to say ultra high def, that capability is not really there. Today, if I want to receive fixed and mobile broadcasts, I need two different tuners. If I just have a mobile DTV tuner, I can’t get my regular programming.
So you would look to unify the mobile and the fixed services in the new standard?
That is a goal that’s been expressed in the community.
Right now, it looks like ATSC is taking the lead on the next-generation standard. Will you be supporting ATSC or do you see NAB taking more of a leadership role in defining the standard?
The NAB is not a standards organization, but, from a standpoint of where do we want to go as broadcasters, that’s a discussion that we can lead here at NAB. We’re uniquely in a position to lead that discussion as broadcasters so that we have a full understanding of what it is that we want to do in the future.
So you define the attributes of the new digital broadcast system and you leave it to ATSC to actually standardize it?
I think ultimately that would be the way. Look at how OMVC operated. OMVC came up with: OK, here is how we can do something, and then it went through the ATSC process. (Editor’s note: The OMVC or Open Mobile Video Coalition is a coalition of major broadcasters and vendors that came together to promote and develop mobile DTV.)
What about the propagation of digital broadcasting signals. Can something be done in the next-generation broadcast signal so that people can actually watch TV with rabbit ears or on mobile devices with very small antennas?
That would definitely be a goal. That would be up there with making sure that you can receive the signal whether it’s a fixed service or a mobile service on the same device.
What about interactivity?
Yes, but it’s a matter of do we have to define the back channel ourselves or will there be other back channels in the marketplace. You don’t want to preclude anything, but at the same time, if it can be enabled through a business relationship, then that flexibility should be built into the system.
The NAB is a signatory to the Shanghai declaration, in which representatives from much of the developed world pledged to work toward a world standard. What are the benefits of that and what are the chances of that happening?
We actually are hosting the next meeting at the NAB Show on Thursday in which hopefully we’re going to ratify that. I think the goal as we move forward is to find a way to harmonize and create synergy across the world standards. The idea of having one standard may be a challenge too far, but having harmonization across those world standards so that services can be consistent, that is something that we would like to try to attain.
How much urgency is behind the next-generation efforts?
We’re still at a fact finding stage on that. There are different levels of urgency. But I think there is a sense that having that flexibility is something that’s very important.
I could see some members of your board pushing back. They just went through a big transition. They may not want the disruption and expense of going to another broadcast standard in the next three or five years.
This is true, and that’s something that we need to balance as we move forward. Right now, what we have to do is present the options to our board in an objective way and in a way that they will understand what needs to be done. Then, the board will give us direction on how to move forward.
Are you happy with the progress that has been made on mobile DTV? It’s been years since OMVC was formed and we don’t seem anywhere close to a real commercial service.
I have done this in my career with iTunes and DVDs and it takes awhile to overcome the inertia and get it to a level where you feel that the consumer can have confidence around the product. You want to do it right.
Congress has passed incentive auction legislation aimed at shifting TV spectrum to the wireless broadband. As the FCC now begins writing rules for conducting the auction and for repacking the TV band, what will be your role?
We’re continuing be a leader in analyzing what the impact will be. In Victor [Tawil] and Bruce [Franca], we have two of the experts who created the reallocation tables for the DTV transition. I would continue to see that as our role — to protect our broadcast interests by putting out the physics, the data, the hard technical data to support our case.