Glenn Reitmeier Opens Up About the Past, Future of Television

A founding father of DTV discusses the waterfront of issues facing the television industry.
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YARDLEY, Pa.—After 17 years at NBCU in key senior technology positions, Glenn Reitmeier recently left the network to form GlennReitmeierTV, a consulting service with a focus on helping industry thought leaders at the intersection of technology, business and legal issues.

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Reitmeier, who rightly could be considered one of the founding fathers of digital high definition television, played a key role in the development, testing and ultimately standardization of the digital HDTV system that eventually became ATSC A/53 (subsequently called ATSC 1).

(Those interested in a retrospective on The Grand Alliance may wish to read “Richard Wiley Recalls The Grand Alliance on Its 25th Anniversary.”)

After spending more than 20 years with Sarnoff Labs and a Sarnoff incubator company, Reitmeier joined NBC Universal as vice president, Advanced Technology, and subsequently was promoted to senior vice president, Technology Standard and Policy, at the network.

During that time, Reitmeier planted the seed among those serving on the board of the Advanced Television Systems Committee that a next-generation digital television system was not only doable but necessary. That “What? You’re crazy” proposal, as Reitmeier describes it, ultimately grew into the ATSC 3.0 suite of standards.

In this first part of a two part interview, Reitmeier opens up about his new consultancy, compares ATSC 1 and 3.0 standardization, sheds light on the transmission system chosen for ATSC 1 and why it was the best solution at the time, discusses 3.0 vs. 5G rollout, talks about where broadcast management stands with NEXTGEN TV and puts future industry advancement into context.

(An edited transcript.)

TVTechnology: Glenn, you recently retired from NBCU and started the GlennReitmeierTV consultancy. Tell me about your plans for your new company.

Glenn Reitmeier: I believe I can provide unique expertise and value at the strategic intersection of business, legal and technology issues. It’s amazing how intertwined they have been throughout the course of my career. Any media business or any business in the supply chain is inherently dependent on technology to create and deliver content, and that content itself is intellectual property that needs to be protected.

So technology and intellectual property become key considerations in the strategic plan of any business in the media supply chain. Likewise, technology is often an explicit part of agreements for affiliation, distribution and other content uses—as well as government regulation. I am looking forward to operating at that intersection and being a resource for the industry thought leaders who will find advantage from combining those elements in the right way.

TVT: You were a part of the engineering team that helped usher in the first era in digital TV, specifically digital HDTV, and you played an important role, including being an ATSC board member, in helping to make ATSC 3.0 a reality. How would you compare the two, and what lessons, if any, from the ATSC 1.0 experience helped in 3.0 standardization?

GR: Boy were they different. In ATSC 1, we had broadcasters petitioning the FCC and the formation of an advisory committee in 1987. The FCC’s Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS) provided intense oversight and rigorous testing of proposals for a new television system.

ACATS developed 10 selection criteria, and the premise was that a single winning system would be selected based upon the test results. A fierce competition raged among proposed systems. By 1989, there were, I think, 23 proposed systems, all of which were analog.

The digital proposals emerged after FCC Chairman [Alfred] Sikes really raised the bar. He said, “No, we don’t have enough spectrum for a multiple channel HDTV approach. We want full HDTV, not anything less, and there’s only one 6 MHz channel.”

Lo and behold, within six months we had the four digital proposals emerge, and they slugged it out for a few years. And after testing and sort of a stalemate, we formed the Grand Alliance in 1993 and began the collaborative phase of the process, confirmed and validated by ACATS testing that we had met the best performance attributes from all of the four previously tested digital systems.

And in those days, the role of the ATSC was to document everything and make sure there was an open standard that could be implemented by all of the manufacturers in the ecosystem. It was government regulation that kind of paced the launch of 1.0 on both the broadcasting side and the receiver side.

ATSC 3.0 couldn’t be a more different story. I think I was probably the first person to begin to talk about the need for a successor standard. Seeing the Grand Alliance system being a decade old and seeing the development of new video compression and advancements in communications, I started with a white paper that I submitted to the ATSC board in 2006.

Sometimes it feels like the history of my career is people saying, “What? You’re crazy.” I heard that a lot in the early days of the digital proposals. After a couple of years of hearing that about a next-generation digital system, the idea started to get some traction in 2009 when we had the digital transition complete and the NTSC analog service was shut down.

In 2010, the ATSC board created a planning team to investigate the viability of new technologies and whether they would substantially advance the prospect of a next-generation standard. In 2011, after the team reported that there were significant new developments here that were substantially advanced from the technologies of ATSC 1.0, the board agreed and realized that it would take time to do the work of setting a new standard.

So, the board formed the new TG3 group, called for input and began the standard setting process. The standards were completed and approved by the FCC in 2017, and the commercial launch of 3.0 is being paced by voluntary industry efforts.

As far as lessons learned, first, on a technical level, we learned that hardware testing was unnecessary for a modern digital system design. You do that these days with rigorous simulation and evaluation, which allows you to avoid the long and costly process of hardware development.

TVT: Right, because when you were doing 1.0, there was nothing. You were starting from scratch.

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GR: Oh, yeah. We were completely starting from scratch, and to be fair there was a degree of skepticism about whether a digital system would be viable at all. “What? You’re crazy. Those many racks of research lab hardware are going to become affordable broadcast equipment and consumer receivers?” Well, with a little help from Moore’s law and thanks to the work of many terrific engineers who designed generation after generation of ATSC 1 products, that’s exactly what happened.

Be that as it may, obviously the process of building a system and debugging and fine-tuning the performance of real-time hardware can be done much more quickly and efficiently in the software simulation environments we have today.

At another level, I think we made a step forward because people realized that the industry is capable of cooperating to create its own voluntary next-gen standards and that we didn’t necessarily need the oversight of an FCC advisory committee. This wasn’t a once-in-50-years event anymore.

I don’t mean to say that the advisory committee was burdensome, nor that there was government interference in the industry. I consider Chairman Wiley one of my role models and mentors for his tremendous leadership during the advisory committee process. But I think we learned that we could do the work in ATSC. That was certainly one of my messages, which I have championed, that we are capable of coming together and doing the work and setting the standard.

But at the highest level, I think that we tried to repeat the ACATS formula of establishing goals and requirements, soliciting competing approaches, rigorously evaluating them, recognizing the best virtues of various approaches and then fostering the collaboration needed to combine the various elements into a complete system.

In retrospect, the ACATS process and the Grand Alliance achieved a truly revolutionary result with ATSC 1.0—it was the world’s first digital television standard. Time will tell how we have done with ATSC 3.0.

TVT: How did 1.0 end up with 8VSB?

GR: It turns out that how the analog signal played with the digital signal was absolutely the lynchpin. [Editor’s note: OTA DTV had to exist in an environment that maintained NTSC transmission for more than 10 years, until analog’s eventual turn off.]

It was finding that knife’s edge balance between the coverage area performance of digital systems and its interference impact on existing analog service. It was absolutely critical to enabling the simulcast transition that we had.

The example I like to use is to achieve that [avoiding interference into a neighboring station’s NTSC service], the digital signals were actually one-sixteenth of the power of the analog signal. So, I have to drop the digital power a factor of 16 in order to not make noise, ghosts and artifacts in the analog service, and at the same time at one-sixteenth the power I have to replicate the coverage of the analog signal in the presence of interference from a high-power, high-tower analog signals all around [i.e., the RF environment].

So, digital signal carrier-to-noise ratio for random noise was a primary attribute in determining coverage, and that’s actually what drove us toward QAM or VSB alternatives. We had to meet that challenge.

I don’t think many people know this, but before the Grand Alliance, we at the Sarnoff-Thomson-Philips-NBC team had actually built both OFDM and QAM transmission systems. We had them both running in the lab, and there was a substantial noise level disadvantage to OFDM at the time that just made it unsuitable for a simulcast environment. At the time of the Grand Alliance, VSB had about a 9db power advantage compared to OFDM, which made a huge difference in our ability to get the largest possible coverage with a digital signal.

Now there are many benefits [to OFDM] like single frequency networks, and the OFDM implementations have gotten substantially better over time, and it obviously was the right choice for ATSC 3.0, but those system choices are highly dependent on the simulcast environment and the transition environment that we are trying to operate within. There are a big set of constraints on the system parameters that you have to choose and balance.

It’s not just the new system and its parameters; it’s the old system and its constraints. You can’t destroy the old business while you are launching the new one.

TVT: What do you think will be fully rolled out first, 3.0 or 5G?

GR: I believe that ATSC 3.0 will be fully deployed before 5G. When you talk about 5G, there are often a lot of assumptions being made. But are you talking about 5G at 900 MHz or mid-band spectrum deployments of 5G? Obviously, as you go up to higher frequencies, you gain higher capacity, but your propagation and coverage area shrink.

To your point, if you are going to be using mid-band and higher frequencies, the cell sizes are going to have to shrink pretty radically, and of course that’s going to require time and investment to build out those higher density cellular networks. You have to compare at least an order of magnitude more cell sites than there are broadcast towers.

When you look at the infrastructure and the investment, I think it becomes a pretty easy conclusion that ATSC 3.0 can be fully deployed before 5G when you look at it on a nationwide basis.

TVT: I ask because it seems as if, like it or not, broadcasters have a relatively narrow window in time to make the most of their spectrum before they face unprecedented competition when it comes to wireless delivery of entertainment and likely regulators and lawmakers who may push for more TV spectrum in a future auction. Is 3.0 the tool to that can help broadcasters remain competitive and stave off further spectrum auctions?

GR: Leaving the spectrum policy questions aside, I will just observe that spectrum is already a scarce resource. ATSC 3.0’s improvements in efficiency, the flexibility to configure signals to achieve coverage and reduce interference, as well as the single frequency network capabilities will all be important in any scarcity of frequency environment, whether today’s allocation stays intact and unchanged or there are further spectrum auctions. I think broadcasters and the country are going to need those improvements in the RF characteristics that 3.0 brings in order to provide reliable service and exist in a crowded spectrum environment.

TVT: From my point of view, the television engineering and academic brain trust of the industry have given the television industry 3.0 with many possibilities and a new level of performance. How would you assess where TV broadcast management is in terms of its interest, understanding and plans for 3.0?

GR: I’m very encouraged and excited about the level of industry support and commitment that is already evident in the 3.0 rollout. Obviously, it is thought leaders who are most intensely interested and moving forward and making ATSC 3.0 deployments and tests.

But there are always leaders and followers when it comes to any new technology or industry change. I look at it like this, here we are just about two years after the standard was approved by the FCC, and we already are seeing voluntary industry lighthouse efforts and transition plans and an industry looking at how to move forward.

Compare that to ATSC 1 two years after the standard was set at the end of 1996, we were just seeing the launch of commercial receivers and there were a handful of stations on the air. But really, in a sense, the industry all looked to the FCC to set rules and requirements and we had the [Michael] Powell plan thanks to Chairman Powell’s leadership.

In ATSC 1, we were all waiting for the government to tell us what to do, and here we are with ATSC 3.0 and the industry leaders who get it are trying to move us forward. I applaud the initiative that is being taken on the commercial front. So, I am encouraged.

TVT: How do you think 3.0 will play out at Comcast/NBCU?

GR: No comment.

Part two of TV Technology's conversation with Glenn Reitmeier will be published next week.

More information about GlennReitmeierTV is available online

For a comprehensive source of TV Technology’s ATSC 3.0 coverage, see our ATSC3 silo.