Mark Aitken Ponders Where TV Standards Are Headed–Part 2

Part 2

While the International CES 2019 was top of mind for Mark Aitken, president of ONE Media LLC and vice president of Advanced Technology at Sinclair Broadcast Group (as discussed in part 1 of this Q&A), far more is happening with regards to broadcast standards and ATSC 3.0.

In part two of this interview, Aitken reveals Sinclair’s plan to rollout ATSC 3.0 in 26 markets in 2019, where Sinclair’s Dallas SFN rollout stands, why 3.0 naysayers will soon see they are off target, the effect multistandard TV exciters and receivers may have on the future of standards and his thoughts on the announcement that ATSC President Mark Richer will soon retire.

(An edited transcript.)

TV TECHNOLOGY:ENENSYS/TeamCast and Comark recently announced they were showing a DTV exciter with support for both 3.0 and DVB-T2 waveforms at BES Expo 2019, India.

At CES, ONE Media rolled out its new multi-standard DTV tuner chipsets with support for at least a dozen standards, including 3.0.

It seems to me that multistandard TV exciters and receivers may usher in a new era in which TV standards become something different than they traditionally have been. In other words, it’s hard to see how TV standards in the future will serve as mechanisms to protect markets, regions, economic interests and even competing political systems. What do you think?

MARK AITKEN: I am sure that I have said Broadcast Market Exchange, BMX, to you on more than one occasion.

We started seven or eight years ago –before we even entered the ATSC process for this standard. We started putting out some white papers and articles about the notion of a Broadcast Market Exchange.

Part of that was looking at what was going on in the spectrum sharing worldview and a lot of that came out of the foundational work even before there was CBRS (citizens band radio service).

CBRS is different spectrum, but it’s all about spectrum sharing and providing spectrum access. So, the Broadcast Market Exchange we envisioned tied together broadcast stations on a virtual basis to create a national network.

That in fact to a large degree was the reason we worked with Nexstar to start Spectrum Co. And Spectrum Co is involved in a lot of conversations right now based on our own commitment to build out [ATSC 3.0] in 26 markets this year and finding other partners in those markets.

That’s all backdrop. The point is we had this thing called the Broadcast Market Exchange that envisioned this world of virtualization. The very same world that is at the heart of 5G –not a bunch of hardware, but in fact cloud-based, virtualized functions.

Well on the other side of the world in India, one of the things that attracted me to Saankhya is that they shared a very, very similar view and about four years ago wrote a series of white papers–and there will be another one coming out shortly—on something called a cognitive radio access network.

Cognitive is now being morphed into AI because everybody believes they know what AI means.

To your point, imagine a network where you have software-defined radios, software-defined receivers. You have a network that when you apply AI has a cognitive ability to determine based upon a set of requirements of how best to deliver a wireless set of packets.

If you can describe the attributes of various technologies, you suddenly have a network that can on its own define unique waveforms to deliver [data] in the most effective and efficient way.

The short word for this is AI-RAN [AI Radio Access Network] where you deploy a network with the ability to shape waveforms and radios that can conform to those waveforms. You can begin to envision a world in 10 years, perhaps less, where you don’t even have a standard per se of a fixed set of waveforms. But in fact you have a network that is capable of producing its own waveforms on a flexible, desirable basis.

I would add that I think that becomes almost essential in a future world where you are looking for security at all levels.

Imagine the ability on a data-frame-by-data-frame basis to convey that data with a slightly different waveform based on a 128-bit or 256-bit encoding scheme.

Suddenly not only are you encoding data, but you are effectively encoding waveforms and obviating the need for a fixed standard.

TVT:So this would be a whole new level of security.

MA: Exactly. You could define your own unique waveform. You are not going to hard code that into a chip because it’s your unique waveform. It’s your own modulation, your own coding scheme. The only thing that is common is this bootstrap.

TVT:Probably from its inception, there have been 3.0 naysayers. Some, given the dearth of 3.0 TVs at this year’s CES, say the Next-Gen TV standard is 'DOA.' Clearly, you don’t see it that way. How would you respond to the naysayers?

MA: I’ve not gone to two CES shows in a row where the theme and the thrust of the show on the outward side wasn’t about something new.

CES is always about something new, and this year, surprisingly or not, it wasn’t just one thing. On the surface, you certainly had 5G, 8K and autonomous vehicles. But all of those things, if you think about it, come back to a flexible means to convey any and all of that.

And so, while there was not a big stage for ATSC 3 television devices, ATSC 3 fits into all of those devices.

And I think if you talked to the manufacturers there are a couple of reasons they haven’t launched new ATSC 3 product lines. One of them is technical, and one of them is market.

On the technical side, it is the issue of content protection. You know the ability to ensure that content [remains safe], creating a high enough bar that you haven’t got easy theft, easy access and therefore easy distribution of an all-IP piece of content.

We are a long ways down that road, and I think in a couple of months there will be an announcement of industry alignment and cohesion around a content protection solution.

And I would venture and say it will be supported by the consumer electronics industry, broadcasters and the MVPDs. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to sell ATSC 3 sets into a marketplace.

Probably the more important piece–and I fully understand this from a product manufacturer’s perspective—where are the 3.0 signals? Where is the content?

We are answering that with an absolute public commitment to launch 26 markets by the end of this year.

When we start launching those markets and there is a clear set of objectives for where those markets are and how the content is going to be protected–when all those things come together—the problem is not a technical problem, it’s the realities of a new market, making sure the new market is alive.

TVT:Have you announced Sinclair’s 26 ATSC 3.0 rollout markets for this year?

MA: We have not publicly stated those yet. We have internally as of today, and we will externally two weeks hence.

We know the 26 markets in which we need nobody to participate to create channel shares and offload channels from one to another to clear a channel for 3.0.

But we have also engaged ourselves in discussions through Spectrum Co. We actually have more than 26 markets. I can tell you that we have commitments from a number of broadcasters to participate in a large number of markets. We have one broadcaster that will be working with us in five markets –somebody outside of Spectrum Co.

I think you will see a public announcement of those markets in a couple of weeks.

TVT:Where does the Sinclair SFN deployment in Dallas stand?

MA: It will light up March 1 at all sites. Actually, I just reminded myself I have to check with legal on this one. The holdup on this one is the MVPD notification process, and the FCC is a stickler on making sure we run out the 120 days. That is why it is March.

But I am saying that with a smile because I don’t know how this partial government shutdown impacts that. I am certainly hopeful that the government will be back to being as dysfunctional as it can be by then.

TVT:Sinclair has announced its STIRR OTT service. It seems like this might be a good learning experience and springboard for launching many aspects of an over-the-air IP-based broadcast service like ATSC 3.0. Is that the case?

MA: There is nothing that we are doing that is not focused on the 3.0 future. So, there is a whole lot of learning that comes out of these things.

So, yeah, STIRR is local-advertiser-supported. It has a lot of the moving pieces that end up being connected to 3.0.

When you think of 3.0, you think of broadcast and broadband. OTT sits right alongside of OTA, and while the ad tech might be slightly different between OTT and OTA because OTT is unicast, a one-to-one relationship with folks, there is a lot of technical convergence between the two.

TVT:Finally, the Advanced Television Systems Committee announced that its president, Mark Richer, would soon be retiring. I know you and Mark have a long history–I believe going back to the early DTV days at Comark. What are your thoughts?

MA: I could almost say I love Mark like a brother, and it’s not as though we haven’t had our differences. We have.

When we are together we have this little routine that we go through that we are the “Co-Marks.” Mark ran the Comark Digital Services Group. That is what he was hired in to do at Comark. It was me and the president at the time who brought him in.

We’ve remained very close. We’ve always had the utmost respect for each other, and very recently I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time together with him in India. We went to the Taj Mahal together.

The industry will miss him. The industry will come to understand that leading an organization that demands consensus is a very trying job. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of talent to try to maintain congeniality in the face of confrontation. It takes a lot of effort to intercede and provide a calming effect and bring aggrieved parties together.

A lot of this is finding the common ground as opposed to highlighting the differences. Mark has affected a lot of people in a very positive way, and he made it look really easy, but I can assure you it was a most difficult job that he was a champion of.

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

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.