LAS VEGAS — Perhaps strangely, it was a broadcaster who was among the most prominent and active figures at CES, instead of some newfangled high-tech disruptor. Sinclair Broadcast Group was not only showing off its long promised system-on-a-chip ATSC 3.0 hardware that it hopes will one day be embedded into smartphones around the world, it was also signing deals to embed its ATSC 3.0 technology into autonomous vehicles, among other technological initiatives.
Sitting in Sinclair’s suite at the Wynn, with the very golden Trump Las Vegas conspicuously dominating the backdrop, Sinclair vice president of advanced technology Mark Aitken sat down with MCN to discuss his company’s broad-reaching technology agenda.
MCN: You worked with an Indian manufacturer (Saankhya Labs) to build chips that support the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard and you have them here at CES in January, just as you promised. Are they ready to deploy?
Mark Aitken: We’re a month out of the foundry, and we’re ready to stamp chips in the tens of millions. This is sort of a soft launch. Two years ago, if you had told me, “you’re going to be in the chip business,” I would have said, “you’re crazy.” But necessity is the mother of invention. The common adage is, rising waters lift all boats. And that’s certainly what we’re feeding into [with the ATSC 3.0 chips]. What’s good for Sinclair in most every way is good for the rest of the industry.
MCN: You’ve offered mobile device makers 1 million of your chips for free. Any takers?
MA: We’re already knee-deep in discussions with one USB device manufacturer. They’ve told us, “All right, I’ll take a million chips, and I’ll put them in a USB device that you can plug into the bottom of a phone with an embedded antenna.”
MCN: Is getting the major smartphone vendors to integrate ATSC 3.0 proving much harder?
MA: There’s an economic battle underway. You look at the FAANG [Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google] companies — they gather huge amounts of intelligence and data [on smartphones], and they analyze it. Well, you get [our ATSC 3.0 chips] onto a device, and suddenly it’s a two-way device, and you’ve got broadcast television, and now I’m competing for eyeballs and time. By the nature of developing the application environment that goes on the device that enables these free services, suddenly I’ve got the ability to tap into the data analytics, and I’m effectively stealing time away from their platform.
We think there’s an economic benefit, and we certainly think there is a consumer benefit. We’ve offered to a major carrier 5 million chips, we’ve offered the engineering of those chips into the devices and we’ve offered a piece of the IP data stream, but that has not been enough to entice them.
MCN: What’s the value proposition of embedding broadcast reception capabilities into smartphones?
MA: You have a chip set that consumes just several tenths of milliwatts of power. That means you can put it in a cellphone and not drain the battery. It means you can put a device in a cellphone that provides for the most fundamental of emergency alerting, emergency informing, device wakeup, all of those things that we’ve heard lots of about. But let’s cut to the chase. There’s content that everybody wants access to. And there’s content that only you want and only I want. The latter is easily served on a one-to-one basis. But when all of us want to watch the same program at the same time, you’re delivering on a multiplicative basis a file which may be many Gigabytes in size.
In unicast I have to deliver, for example, a 1 Gigabyte file to everybody. Multiply that by thousands. With broadcast, I deliver just one 1 Gigabyte file, and everybody’s got it. You have this growing warehouse of spectrum that’s coming into the hands of the carriers. But we seem to have the same problems all the time. Just try to watch the Super Bowl on your cellphone. It’s very simple: Our job is to get in front of the largest population as possible. The one-to-everyone approach is a distribution technique that’s much needed in today’s telecommunications environment.
MCN: But doesn’t 5G have the capacity to render those unicast concerns moot?
MA: I was reading an article yesterday that positioned 5G as solving the problem of lack of broadband in rural America. Hogwash. If you don’t have line of sight, you don’t have coverage. So when you look at a Verizon deployment of 5G in millimeter-wave spectrum, you are literally looking at radio heads that are spaced, in some cases, less than 300 feet apart. 5G and millimeter wave is a full buildout of the most dense network that you can imagine.
MCN: At CES, Sinclair has announced agreements with audio company Harmon and Korean mobile operator SK Telecom to develop ATSC 3.0-based automotive technology. What is Sinclair doing in the automotive market?
MA: Part of that is entertainment. But I would venture to say a bigger part of it is about data distribution to vehicular platforms. How are you going to lock down a secure environment where I have V-to-V and V-to-X communication requirements as we move increasingly close to an autonomous vehicle world? How do I provide instantaneous information to a million vehicles about catastrophic event — a bridge is out, say. And how do I integrate that into all of the internal workings of this AI-assisted autonomous vehicle population? Broadcast is ideally suited to distribute big files to everyone in reach of that signal, whether it’s a high-density mapping situation, or emergency situation or entertainment.