Mark Aitken speaks out on DTV transmission, regulation

Television broadcasters in the United States face a competitive situation similar to a prizefighter who’s forced to wear a straightjacket when facing the World Heavy Weight Champion.

That’s how Mark Aitken, Director, Advanced Technology, for Sinclair Broadcast Group, sums up where television broadcasters find themselves. On the one hand, they are required by law to transmit DTV using the ATSC A/53 standard, and on the other, they are being pushed into a knockdown, drag-out battle with wireless providers that covet their spectrum and are being cheered on by the FCC.

Aitken was present at a mid-November 2010 meeting at FCC headquarters, where an OFDM-based transmission scheme was demonstrated for commission staff. A video clip from the meeting posted on the Internet showed Aitken seated at a conference table with commission staff, a representative from the NAB and the head of the advocacy group.

His presence at the meeting prompted a call from Broadcast Engineering to learn what interest, if any, Sinclair has in the Converged Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting OFDM-based system that was demonstrated.

In the following interview, Aitken makes clear that the broadcaster is not focused on advocating any particular new digital modulation scheme. Rather, Sinclair seeks “to best serve the interest of the American public,” regardless of the technology.

RF Update: How would you characterize Sinclair’s interest in CMMB and alternate modulation techniques like OFDM?

Mark Aitken: I would have to say our interest is not found in any one particular technology. It isn’t just a matter of modulation but with respect to the 11-year history of this organization and the fight to maintain a balance between the technologies a broadcaster uses and the ability of a consumer to easily receive our signal. There’s never been in this individual’s mind a notion of a modulation battle. It’s really been a battle to best serve the interest of the American public.

RF Update: So from your point of view, what are the most important reasons the commission should consider giving broadcasters the freedom to choose a different modulation scheme if that’s appropriate?

Mark Aitken: I would first precede my answer by saying we are not looking for anarchy. I think one of the things that has served the American public well for decades is the notion of universal, ubiquitous service. So this isn’t so much about this broadcaster wants to do this and that broadcaster wants to do something different.

It is a matter of freeing ourselves from the economic interests of consumer electronics manufacturers and focusing on the needs of the American public, which are served by broadcasters. So I guess I would say from my point of view the most important reason for the commission to have an open discussion about modulation and compression technology and all the various individual pieces of any standard is to have a dialog that can lead to the best of the best for us to better serve the American public.

RF Update: How would you balance your, or Sinclair’s, interest in mobile ATSC with what might be possible with CMMB technology?

Mark Aitken: I’m not sure there needs to be a balance because first and foremost, ATSC is the law of the land. You know the last many years have been focused on how to get the most out of the ATSC standard. So as a standards-setting body, the ATSC has engaged all of the parts of the industry to meet certain requirements that have been put forward by broadcasters.

If you take a longer view of history, one of the things that I believe Sinclair highlighted beginning in 1999 and 2000 was that there had never been a real engagement on the part of broadcasters to set forward a set of requirements, a set of expectations — you know, the balancing of coverage vs. service, which are two very different things.

So broadly speaking, we have wrung out of the 8-VSB technology an ability to serve the consuming public in ways that we were unable to with the normal mode of operation of the ATSC A/53 standard. Having said that, I certainly would like to believe that once the business of mobile TV — so it’s more than mobile ATSC, it’s mobile DTV — that we can put that on steroids in the future … that we can extract out of the license we have or a small segment of spectrum to provide more services to balance the need of bandwidth in sort of the more global interest of this spectrum debate that is under way.

Once again, broadcasting is about serving the American public, and I think free over-the-air television and free over-the-air mobile DTV provide more of a view of what the balance needs to be, which is providing the services people want in the most cost-effective means possible, which is broadcasting.

RF Update: In mid-November at the FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C., you were part of a group that made a presentation to FCC staff regarding OFDM and CMMB. I was wondering how you got involved in that.

Mark Aitken: Well, I’ve been at several meetings that have been requested by others with FCC staff. It is more for me a fact-finding mode of operation, which is to say that there are a lot of interests that come forward to the FCC with specific points of view. That November meeting with the former CBA (Community Broadcasters Association) group and SpectrumEvolution was just one such meeting. I was not there to represent any particular cause, although I certainly made known my opinion when asked by Julie Knapp and others who were present at that meeting.

But I was there really to understand better the opportunities that that particular alignment of low-power broadcasters and technologies represented in the bigger scheme of the FCC’s NPRM that has been put forward on spectrum-related issues. I was at a meeting last week called by another party. And we discussed the notion of opening the discussion of spectrum to be more of a collaborative discussion, not just about what are broadcasters willing to give up, but what is the balance that we are trying to achieve.

Part of that balance, I believe is that broadcasting is a one-to-many approach of communication and serves itself well to offload full capacity that is being consumed by a public that’s been conditioned somewhat to be agnostic to the technology and simply look at the benefit without noting what the impact of that is.

So you have this huge percentage of spectrum capacity that is being used for fun and games, but at the end of the day, you should not jeopardize the national interests of the American public, in terms of their access to over-the-air broadcast television as a free medium. And, it should not impact the opportunities that were expressed in the order and rulemaking that promised broadcasters the opportunity to leverage this digital spectrum in new and exciting ways, not just about HDTV, and not just about multicasting and not just about datacasting, but everything that could be leveraged as part of that right that has been granted with a license.

RF Update: If you look back at the mid-November meeting, how would you sum up how the commission staff reacted to this new approach and any steps taken since?

Mark Aitken: Well, I can certainly comment that at the meeting I was at last week, where most of the members of the commission staff who were present at that mid-November meeting, they vocalized that they were pleased to see this level of engagement on the part of a broadcaster or broadcasters in trying to get to a solution space on clearly what is an issue.

I tend to say the issue is not really spectrum. The issue is an issue of bandwidth capacity, and spectrum is just one of the components that creates bandwidth. I think the other two components are the underlying technologies and then certainly there are the regulatory policy matters.

So those three things — regulatory, technology and spectrum — come together to create bandwidth, and I certainly was not looking for any specific steps to be taken at that particular meeting. I know the reaction on the part of SpectrumEvolution and that CBA alliance of stations that were looking for specific steps, and I would say they may well have a good argument there. But that’s not my fight. That’s not the reason I was there, but I certainly would support the commission granting a license to further experiment with the innovative approaches they presented as one of the possible solutions to the bandwidth congestion issues we are all facing.

RF Update: What would you like to see happen next with regards to the three components of bandwidth — regulatory, technology and spectrum?

Mark Aitken: I think every broadcaster is waiting for the FCC to get the NPRM issued into the Federal Register so they can comment on it. I think there will be a very comprehensive comment period by broadcasters individually and by many organizations. I know the organizations I am involved with — certainly Sinclair Broadcast Group is my employer — but I am an executive member of the board of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, I am a member of the board of the Mobile 500, and I continue to chair the standardization activities of ATSC’s mobile DTV initiatives. So what I would like to see happen next is those comments blossom into a fruitful discussion between all of the involved entities as to the nature of the problem and how we can best deal with the problem.

I say it that way because I think the problem is not just about spectrum. From the very beginning of the FCC putting forward the idea that there was a looming spectrum crisis, I’ve questioned them about the fact that why have they jumped immediately to solutions space? They are saying the answer to all of these problems is a matter of spectrum, and I would say that no amount of spectrum is going to solve the nature of the problems they are discussing. It is as I said earlier about three components of bandwidth — spectrum’s role, the underlying technologies and the progression of those technologies and the timeline of those technologies play a major role — and I think most importantly at this juncture for broadcasters, it’s a matter of regaining a balanced policy role that puts broadcasters in a position to be competitive with the other wireless providers.

Many people have heard me say many, many times, that we are in a regulatory straightjacket. So it is unfair for the FCC to point to broadcasters sort of as a boxer in the ring with a straightjacket on and wondering why he can’t compete against Mohammad Ali. The fact of the matter is unrestrain broadcasters from this regulatory straightjacket, and I think you will see a fine example of innovation and ingenuity at work in broadcasters living up to the promises that were extolled to all with the advent of digital television and mobile digital TV.

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.