HUNT VALLEY, Md.—ATSC 3.0 in smartphones took a big step forward this week with delivery of the first of hundreds of production sample phones to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a key part of the station group’s strategy to ensure that NextGen TV one day is an integral part of mobile phones and other devices.
The ONE Media Mark One phone powered by Saankhya Labs is an Android smartphone with built-in Saankhya Labs SL4000 ATSC 3.0 receiver chip providing NextGen TV reception, tuning and demodulation. The Mark One relies on an embedded antenna –not a pull-out or hang-on antenna—and is an unlocked AT&T- and T-Mobile-compatible device, says Mark Aitken, President of ONE Media 3.0 and senior vice president of technology at Sinclair.
“This is the phone that we had hoped we would have had in sample form for the NAB Show,” says Aitken, “but COVID struck—it struck hard and shut things down.”
The Mark One has been two years in the making, delayed for months because the electronics industry in China where certain components are fabricated was shut down as the virus affected the nation, he says.
By jointly developing the underlying technology with Saankhya Labs (working with BORQS, a device OEM), building the phone and deploying NextGen TV stations around the country, Sinclair in essence has eliminated the chicken-egg problem. “We are both the chicken and the egg,” says Aitken.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Sinclair is in talks with two large MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) that ride on the AT&T and T-Mobile wireless networks about offering the phone, says Aitken, who declined to identify the operators.
“There are millions of MVNO subscribers that would be ripe for the picking so to speak with a smartphone of this sort. That’s one of the reasons for pushing so hard to get this phone to a ready state,” says Aitken, adding that at the moment the Mark One is not ready for mass consumer sales but that “it’s not far away.”
With a 3.0 smartphone on the way to potentially millions of consumers, it will be easier for the station group to implement another key aspect of its NextGen TV deployment strategy: state government mandates requiring smartphones to be built with 3.0 receivers.
“We are in the process of getting legislation into multiple states, specifically state house and senate legislation in New York at the moment, for a mandate to include ATSC 3.0 receivers in smartphones because of the public safety and public service side of the standard,” he says.
In July, New York State Senator Kevin Parker and Clyde Vanel (State Assembly Chairman, Internet and New Technology Subcommittee) introduced legislation (S8797) mandating inclusion of the 3.0 receiver chip in portable electronic devices defined in the bill as “any handheld mobile telephone… personal digital assistant (PDA), or handheld device with mobile data access.”
“On and after January first, Two Thousand Twenty-Two, no manufacturer shall provide for sale in this state any portable electronic device not equipped with an ATSC 3.0 chip,” the legislation reads.
The Advanced Emergency Alerting and Informing (AEAI) aspects of ATSC 3.0 “are not going unnoticed at the state level,” says Aitken.
While the Federal Communications Commission has expressed no interest publicly in mandating 3.0 receivers in smartphones, the AWARN Alliance and others in the television industry have spent the past several years educating local, state and federal emergency managers about ways in which NextGen TV can help inform the public and assist them in the event of a disaster.
Broadcasters and vendors of emergency alerting technology used by TV broadcasters have stepped up as well. For example, the News-Press & Gazette station group has worked with AWARN to demonstrate how the standard could have been used to alert viewers in specific neighborhoods of Santa Barbara, Calif., to the threat of mudslides.
But until the Mark One, such alerts would only have been useful to home viewers. With a 3.0-enabled smartphone, the public can stay informed of emergencies regardless of where they are, says Aitken.
“Very soon, I am going to be sending phones to AT&T and other mobile companies, and I will ask a simple question,” he says. “What is preventing your organization, your business, from manufacturing a phone that could save lives in the event of natural disaster, a public safety situation or crime?”
The offer Aitken made a couple of years ago at the ATSC Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., to provide AT&T and other wireless companies with a million 3.0 receiver chips, each, for free stands to this day, he says.
Initially, the Mark One will be put into the hands of friends and family of Sinclair staff in markets where it delivers ATSC 3.0 to help the station group fine tune its NextGen TV service. The phones are equipped with a return channel so that data collected about reception levels at various locations can help guide the station group as it makes decisions about deploying ATSC 3.0 single frequency networks (SFNs) around the country, he says.
However, that’s just the start. Aitken anticipates strong interest in the phone from consumers. “There’s not a person I’ve talked to over the past two years of getting to this point who hasn’t said, ‘As soon as you have it, I want one,’” he says.
The Mark One is aimed at the middle of the market. Target pricing is below $300 if the production run is in the tens of thousands, $200 if it is in the hundreds of thousands of units and even less if millions of the phones are produced, he says.
“We’re not in this for the money [from phone sales],” says Aitken. “I guess we are a little bit crazy, but we are not so crazy as to think that we want to be in the business of selling phones.”
Beyond the Mark One, Aitken envisions the SL4000 3.0 receiver chip being used in a range of other consumer devices, such as NextGen TV gateways capable of receiving 3.0 and retransmitting content via Wi-Fi to tablets and other home devices, and even into cars for a range of applications from receiving map and navigation data to enabling wireless firmware updates to onboard car systems.
“It [the SL4000] is the lowest common denominator that fills the largest number of possible use cases,” he says.
A video detailing the Mark One smartphone is available here.
Phil Kurz is contributing editor to TV Technology
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