TECH SPOLIGHT

Aitken: Compatibility Is Next-Gen Imperative

Any new broadcast TV technical standard must “harmonize” with the standards used by wireless mobile operator and the white space spectrum user communities, according to Sinclair’s tech guru Mark Aitken. That’s why Sinclair is working on an alternative to ATSC 3.0 along with Coherent Logix. Their joint venture, ONE Media, will create a platform that relies on software-defined radios in consumer devices ranging from LTE mobile phones to tomorrow’s TVs to make updates possible so TV stations don’t get locked into a standard that quickly becomes obsolete.

The future success of over-the-air television boils down to one imperative in the eyes of Mark Aitken, vice president advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group: escape from the technological isolation in which stations have been trapped for nearly 20 years.

“ATSC 1.0 is an island,” Aitken says. What is needed from a next-generation TV standard is a way to “harmonize” television broadcasting with the standards in use by wireless mobile operators and the white space spectrum user communities, he says.

The failure of the ATSC 3.0 development effort to give priority to integrating the LTE standards work of the 3GPP, or 3rd Generation Partnership Project, used by wireless carriers and IEEE-based standards driving the development of the white space industry, is what pushed Sinclair to seek a different path for a next-generation television standard, Aitken says.

“If you are not aware of the multiple dimensions of connectivity that you wish to leverage, you end up with a standard that does not interoperate well,” he adds.

ONE Media, the joint venture of Sinclair and Coherent Logix announced this week, is hoping to press the reset button on the effort to develop a next-generation TV standard. Its goal is to create an alternative built on the foundation of a business use case that recognizes the importance of reaching viewers not just via the living room big screen but also on their existing LTE devices, and doing so in a way that leverages LTE and IEEE standards, Aitken says.

“We are starting with the premise that we want to be as close to LTE as is possible and necessary so that as we move forward we can harmonize into the environment of standards that exist,” Aitken says. By contrast, ATSC is developing a television standard that runs the risk of once again stranding local television broadcasters on a technological island, he says.

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Aitken adds that large consumer electronics companies participating in the ATSC 3.0 development process, including Sony, Samsung and LG, will say the standards effort supports mobile. However, mobile is “not the primary function” of the standard, he says.

“When you dig in deep, what you find out is truly mobile is a secondary function. As a result of that, you end up with sub-optimal approaches being applied to mobility that don’t match up well against the need to harmonize across many standards,” Aitken says.

Tommy Eng, president-CEO of Coherent Logix and ONE Media, says the work on ATSC 3.0 has split into two polarized camps, one dominated by the consumer electronics industry pushing for a DVB-T-like standard and the wireless industry, which wants an LTE-centric standard. “Neither of these extreme cases will work,” he claims. 

Eng, whose Coherent Logix submitted a proposal for the physical layer of ATSC 3.0 along with Sinclair, adds that choosing one or the other approach might further the business case of certain companies but not of all the participants.

“Unless there is a win-win all the way around, a new ATCS standard will fall apart,” he says. ATSC M/H is fresh example of how an ATSC standard that doesn’t provide a winning scenario for all industry participants is doomed to failure, Eng says. “Let’s not repeat that history.”

In developing a next-generation TV platform, ONE Media hopes to borrow the wireless industry’s approach with LTE — an acronym that stands for long-term evolution, Eng says. “I don’t want to see another transition like the last one. Synchronizing the transition from analog to digital was too painful and costly. Going forward we should be able to evolve as improvements come along.”

Key to that evolution is implementation of software-defined radios, or SDRs, as receivers that will allow software updates to consumer devices ranging from LTE mobile phones to tomorrow’s home TVs. Coherent Logix has built a business on designing and delivering software-defined radio silicon.

The ONE Media announcement has ruffled feathers at ATSC, according to one influential ATSC member who wishes to remain anonymous. Its launch will likely be an important agenda item at the May 9 ATSC board meeting in Washington, D.C., the source says.

Both Eng and Aitken said ONE Media is inviting other broadcasters to provide input into the development of the next-generation platform. They added that ONE Media will work with ATSC to see its development standardized within the standards body.

“They [Sinclair and Coherent Logix] are so pie-in-the-sky in terms of what software-defined radio technology is,” says the source. “They are trying to sell something that the rest of the industry is not ready for.”

The source adds the consumer electronics companies represented in the ATSC 3.0 standards work are “adamantly against software-defined receivers.”

However, Aitken says software-defined radios are central to making certain television stations don’t get locked into a standard that quickly becomes obsolete. “If we are going to remain relevant through the increasingly small life cycle of technologies, we have to have a platform that will evolve,” he says.

“When the government wants a flexible radio system, when the transportation industry wants a flexible radio system and when the wireless industry wants a flexible radio, they turn to software,” Aitken says. “How can we be any different than that?”

Aitken also does not give much credence to naysayers who dismiss the ONE Media effort out of concern the FCC will be a roadblock.

The Spectrum Act that authorizes the agency to conduct an incentive auction and spectrum repack gives the FCC permission to grant waivers that allow broadcasters to make flexible use of their spectrum as long as they continue transmitting at least one free, over-the-air SD channel. Stations taking the waivers do so in lieu of receiving expense reimbursement for relocating to a new channel assignment.

Sinclair has urged the FCC to be generous in granting these waivers not simply because they give broadcasters an easy regulatory way to deploy the ONE Media next-generation TV platform, but also because they will allow the agency to stretch limited relocation funds farther.

Beyond flexible use, Aitken says, people should not scoff at the idea of broadcasters simply telling the FCC what they need for a next-generation TV transmission standard.

“I remember a meeting in 1999,” he says. “We walked into the offices of [former FCC Chairman] Bill Kennard and asked: ‘Why did we end up with this [DTV] standard?’ The simple answer was: ‘Well, broadcasters asked for it.’ So guess what, broadcasters simply need to ask again.”


Comments (7)

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Matthew Castonguay says:

May 8, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Isn’t the ATSC comprised of representatives not just of broadcasters but also various other constituencies (like set manufacturers)? In which case, the debate is as much (more?) political than technical. If you polled the chief engineers of all the major groups and told them to set aside the “realities of the ATSC” and ask “is Aitken right?”, and most said “yes”, then maybe it’s time for broadcasters to get a lot more assertive about determining their own destiny instead of catering to ATSC sensitivities.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 8, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Yes, many of the specs for the original ATSC 1.0 were forced on because of the computer industry.

    Christina Perez says:

    May 12, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Call me a Luddite if you will, but if the current standard were made more robust with a backwardly-compatible retool, you’d see resurgence of handheld TVs, forcing cellphone makers to install ATSC chips in their gear. FREE TV is STILL a big draw, even if industry leaders secretly crave a transition to “all-pay” TV.

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

May 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm

If other broadcasters (and wireless companies) agree with Aitken and Sinclair, this is a gigantic undertaking — at least as challenging for all parties as the recent conversion to digital. It’s going to take more than broadcasters “demands” to impose a new cross-platform standard. The NAB needs to reach out now to the Consumer Electronics Association and other constituencies to make this happen. Otherwise we’ll end up with a Balkanized system of warring standards.

Ellen Samrock says:

May 8, 2014 at 12:37 pm

ONE Media’s proposal may be a very good one but at the end of the day the ATSC must sign off on it for the FCC to take a serious look at it (unless what Sinclair is proposing is compatible with whatever standard the committee ultimately agrees on). We don’t need a Cam-D (Leonard Kahn’s maverick system for hybrid digital AM) for television broadcasting.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 8, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Too bad Leonard Kahn’s system was better (in AM Stereo in the 80s and digital instead of IBOC) than what was eventually used.

Blair Faulstich says:

May 8, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Unless broadcasters are bold and willing to look at what covers the whole ecosystem then we will end up in another boondoggle like the one we find ourselves in today. Until ATSC can articulate exactly what it is they plan, you have to applaud Sinclair for trying to do something that benefits all broadcasters.


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