Before the COVID-19 pandemic, when a new TV station transmission chain came online, it was common for engineering management from the corporate office and key suppliers to travel to the launch site to ensure that all went well.
With today’s travel restrictions, a series of ATSC 3.0 station rollouts by Sinclair Broadcast Group — a NEXTGEN TV pioneer, and lead advocate — is being managed remotely.
The efficiencies that this new approach offers could make this the way of the future.
With the recent launch of Sinclair’s first commercial ATSC 3.0 station in Las Vegas, company subsidiary ONE Media controlled the launch from Sinclair’s corporate headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md.
Simultaneously, key suppliers were on call from distant parts of the world. From South Korea, DigiCAP engineers who provided the ATSC 3.0 air chain were monitoring the system, as were personnel located in France and the U.S. representing the encoder supplier ATEME.
Ian Hoots, Director of NextGen Development at ONE Media 3.0/Sinclair, commented, “Launching remotely requires a different level of care and planning. You have to check pre-configurations three times before you ship them to the build site because it is the last time you can conveniently touch them. This contrasts with the way these systems were built in the past, where you put all the equipment in a truck heading for the station with the basic plan of making it all work when you got there.”
Mark Aitken, SVP of Advanced Technology at Sinclair Broadcast Group, added, “What you cannot ignore is that the remote approach requires a more precise level of planning. It is like the difference between baking and cooking. To get a soufflé to rise and set properly, there is science involved. When you are cooking a routine meal, you have a lot more latitude. With IT systems there is always a recipe which is very precise. In both baking and IT there is exact timing, measurement, and specific ingredients needed to achieve the result.”
For Dave Brass, VP Strategic Account at ATEME, other industries such as telecom have been doing remote installations for many years now. In addition, the remote activities have grown to include much more than just the installation.
“It can start with a digital marketing campaign for a new product, which leads to an online remote demonstration, which leads to a sale, and then leads to a remote installation,” said Brass. “In some cases customers asks us, what the minimum number of people we need to send for an installation? Depending on what they are setting up, it can be either zero or one person.”
In the view of Sang Jin Yoon, SVP of Business Development at DigiCAP, it is also common for the remote relationship to extend after the sale as well. Because ATSC 3.0 is the world’s first TV standard built to evolve, it could create maintenance activity from a steady stream of patches and upgrades. As Sang Jin sees it, his company, as well as many others, offer a managed service to automatically handle the upgrades from afar.
Another managed remote service is predictive maintenance.
Sang Jin says this is a combination of vigilant monitoring and data science. “We monitor the behavior of the systems and record and catalog all events,” Sang Jin says. “When we analyze the records, patterns emerge. Over time, we can predict when problems will come up.”
Will remote operations degrade personal relationships between TV facilities and their suppliers?
Based on his experience with the Sinclair station roll outs Hoots does not think so.
“Even though we did not meet our suppliers in person we found ourselves working quite closely with them through remote work sessions,” he notes. “You do miss sharing the moment when it all comes together and there is happiness in the room. Even though we miss that, we still all did an amazing job working closely with our vendors who often had to work at the edges of time windows, staying up very late for us many times. Through all of it we never felt like we were at a disadvantage because they could not be here.”
While the loss of face-to-face time between broadcasters and suppliers could be a loss to relationships, this could be more than offset by new touch points that remote work can add. Relationships could be strengthened through more frequent remote product demos as new features are added while remote managed services can add a whole new layer of post-sale contact.
Looking forward, Aitken sees the remote work done on the Sinclair station launches not as a one-off, but a rehearsal for things to come.
“In many ways these remote set-ups are practice rounds for the future,” he says. As more and more operations are virtualized and move to the cloud, remote work will become more common. The bigger point is that specialized broadcast hardware does not exist anymore. The challenges are no longer about integrating specialized hardware, instead the issues are about compute power, memory, and latency. Once a broadcaster completes the transition to IT infrastructure, they are dealing with virtualized functions, virtual machines, and using standard IT servers and switches made by Dell, IBM, Cisco, and HP. This has been the backbone of the Telecom industry, which is now being fitted and deployed in a broadcast environment. In the Telecom industry, remote installations and other remote work has been common for many years.”
— Josh Gordon, in Brooklyn, N.Y., with additional content from reporters in Las Vegas