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Phil Kurz

OTA Wireless Readies ATSC 3.0 Datacasting For Commercial Deployment (Part 2)

ATSC 3.0.

LEAWOOD, Kan.—For ATSC 3.0-based datacasting to live up to its fullest potential, broadcasters must use their allocated channel assignments in a way that best balances the totality of their chosen business models with their available data throughput—whether those IP packets contain video, audio or data.

But before the TV industry can achieve that ultimate goal, several shorter-term milestones must be achieved, not the least of which is finding a way to minimize ATSC 1.0 service as a “nightlight” to viewers slow to buy new NextGen TVs.

In this, the second part of an interview with Nexstar Media Group executive vice president and CTO Brett Jenkins and E.W. Scripps vice president of strategy and business development Kerry Oslund, the pair discuss advancing the 1.0-to-3.0 transition, how digital out-of-home display may prove to be the lowest hanging fruit for 3.0 datacasting and the HPE-based core network that will enable OTA Wireless to match the geographic coverage requirements of datacasting customers.

(Editor’s note: Part 1 is available online.)

(An edited transcript.)

TVTech: Brett, what struck me about your answer [regarding transitioning from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0 in Part 1] is that broadcasters will hop on board the 3.0 datacasting train when they see revenue being generated. But isn’t something going to have to give if more sticks are to transition—namely digital sub-channels?

Brett Jenkins: You know, again, I think it's easy for me to just say it depends—because it really does. Every market is different. There's a different number of stations and different spectrum partners. Some folks lean in more than others. Literally, every market and every TV station is unique. This is not a one-size-fits all solution to the transition problem. 

I think it starts with some of the things broadcasters have already said, which is at some point we do need cooperation from the regulatory authorities. We started the Future of Television initiative together with the FCC—sort of the industry going to the regulators and saying we could use some help figuring this out. 

What does the end of the transition look like? My personal read of the situation is there are solutions in almost every market that could speed us along, such as if there were a little more certainty about the availability of television sets and receivers and if there were more certainty around certain dates. I think that would help the folks on the consumer product side look at this and say, “We've got to get a little more serious about road mapping this stuff [ATSC 3.0] into our products.” There's a lot of effort going on that hopefully will get us through some of these problems. 

I just would say as a practical matter, one of the solutions floated by engineers in our industry—folks like me—is the inverse concept of the lighthouse. We always came into this with the idea that there's a lighthouse that lights the way, and then at the tail end, there's a nightlight, that sort of keeps the lights on for let's say, the laggards in the marketplace. 

To be quite frank, there is no reason why the industry or even just markets on a market-by-market basis could not decide to move toward that nightlight concept even under today's regulatory framework with the simulcasting mandates and get more 3.0 stations on the air than 1.0.

But it does require doing things like taking your Diginets off 1.0 and moving them onto 3.0. So, that's one idea. The other idea you're starting to see is we can free up more 3.0 spectrum if we're willing to take our 1.0 Diginets and move those to MPEG-4 and create less burden on the 1.0 spectrum. Nexstar has done that in a couple of markets. I know other broadcasters have done that, too. So, I think we've got a couple handles that we are ready to execute on, and we could execute on them very rapidly.

I think there are operators who are going to be cautious, and quite frankly, it's rational to take a wait-and-see position. We have to do our job of proving there is a business out there for some portion of broadcasters.

I feel strongly it makes sense. We've got these tools; they're ready; we've thought about them; and we've talked about them. We know how to execute them. When the time is right, we can pull those levers to get us further along the transition path.

Kerry Oslund: I happen to be on the Future of TV Group 1 Committee. Everything Brett said is what we're talking about. It starts with date certainty, and then it moves to that nightlight and then taking a look at the codecs that are available to us.

Our standard (ATSC 1.0) is over 15 years old. The codec we're using, MPEG-2, is 30 years old. This is old, old stuff. We need the ability to use new, new stuff—the stuff our competitors are using. Whether it's HEVC or VVC or whatever, we've got to get away from something that's 30 years old and takes way more bandwidth than is required anymore. 

TVTech: At the NAB Show in the ATSC booth, a representative from AT&T Business was talking about AT&T rolling out 3.0 datacasting to its retail stores to deliver content for digital signage. I believe the representative mentioned OTA Wireless as one source of 3.0 bandwidth. What can you tell me?

KO: We definitely know what they are doing, and yes, they could potentially be customers—for sure.

I think what we're really talking about is digital out-of-home display. When we talk about a serviceable market and where the first dollar is digital out-of-home is probably the lowest hanging fruit.

Without talking about AT&T, I can talk to you about another company that we're further down the line with. It has 4,000 screens that are servicing banks. They really liked the idea of pulling a Sony Pro TV out of a box, hanging it on the wall and it's already configured for digital out-of-home use without having to connect to the bank's networks and without having to talk to their engineers.

They're saving setup time, and then they're saving money when it comes to the bandwidth. One of these signs typically takes about 3.5 GB per month. The costs that are being applied for the wireless connection are anywhere between $2.50 and $12 per gigabyte. That's the market. 

Alright, we are entering the market, and we're saying we can do a lot better, even if it costs a little bit more to upgrade your device. These are very smart capital investments if in fact you're getting such a break on the bandwidth costs.

TVTech: Earlier [in Part 1], you talked about the broadcast core network and HPE [Hewlett Packard Enterprise]. Could you tell me where that stands today at OTA Wireless?

BJ: One of the first things Kerry said when we started working together—even before we had the name OTA Wireless—was, “Look, if we're going to set up a business, we're going to need business software and systems just like every other business needs to be able to support a customer and collect money. How do we apply cash? How do we create an invoice? How do we track what it is that we're invoicing? Kerry had that vision, and we went to our partners at HPE, a well-known and very smart technology company that does these types of things for lots of different businesses. They created what we at the time called the core—our core network product.

KO: This is an order-to-cash system. We call it our portal. It starts off with the assistance page to show if there are any alerts or alarms that we need to be worried about. Then we take a look at our coverage map to see what markets are lit up.

If we want to showcase our reach and our ability to reach a potential customer’s devices, we can upload their locations. In this case, I'll upload the locations of the McDonald’s in Michigan, and you can see all the locations that fall within the Detroit RF footprint and those that fall outside of it.

By the way, we're just not lit up in the markets outside of Detroit, but we cover most of Michigan between Nexstar and Scripps.

TVTech: What about control of individual stations that make up the 3.0 datacasting network?

KO: We have a service catalog where from a single point of control, we can go—with the right permissions—change all of the television services at one station or at 100 stations. So, we have a single point of control where we can synchronize everything. In this particular case, we’re talking about a datacasting service. We could do an HD service or a broadcast app.

Anything that needs to be configured at a TV station, we can do a central point of control. If we're looking at datacasting, we decide how many megabits per second we are going to allow the customer to access, and then the customer will have access to that when it's time to upload a file to be datacast. 

[The system] can reach into an S3 [Amazon Simple Storage Service] bucket or watch folder and grab the files there. If it's API-connected to whatever data distribution service the customer already uses, [it can work with that]. We give it a flight date and define how long we're going to run it.

In this case, imagine I'm reaching into an S3 bucket, and I'm going to take the book “War and Peace,” and I'm going to send it out over TV signals. I upload it, and boom, it now is going out over Detroit and Kansas City. That’s not a fake. We really did that.

TVTech: I imagine paying customers will want confirmation that their files have been delivered.

KO: This is where Sony's magic comes in. They helped us build the return path report. We can use any sort of connectivity to send back just a few kilobits of information that says we got it. We send out the FAT file in one direction. We were sending out 1 GB files for an automobile company just last week, and then we ping back using Wi Fi, Bluetooth, 4G—whatever sort of connectivity we can get—and send back just 8 kbs that say: “OK, here’s the file; here’s what we got; here’s when we got it; here’s the device that got it; and here’s the GPS coordinates where the device was when it got it.”

Because now we have sent the file, we've confirmed receipt of the file, then the next button is the best button. That's where we get to bill. That's the core portal, and it's pretty fun. I mean, if you look at the billing, and obviously we've got big data going through there right now, but it's kind of like watching a gas pump.

If you know you're filling up and it gets to $100, now you're getting depressed. This is the reverse. We're watching the pump, and you're getting so excited about it because you're getting paid the whole time. 

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