Deeper Dive—Saankhya Labs is ‘cellularizing’ broadcast to make mobile TV possible

Saankhya Labs is advocating a low power low tower, broadcast radio head (BRH) architecture wherein the transmitters radiate 20W to 100W and are co-located with 4G base stations. (Pixabay)

Live TV on a mobile device is already possible today through several subscription services. But free over-the-air TV delivered via an IP network to a mobile device could be a more ubiquitous reality soon, and Saankhya Labs is a key company working toward making that a reality.

Saankhya Labs was on hand a Mobile World Congress last month to demonstrate its 5G broadcast solution. The company described its new solution as a convergence of broadcast and broadband technology, or as “cellularizing” a broadcast network. We asked Parag Naik, co-founder and CEO of Saankhya Labs, to explain further just what it takes to cellularize broadcast.

Traditionally, broadcast architectures stick to a high power high tower scheme using a single stick with an effective isotropic radiated power of greater than 1 million watts.

“This has been the ‘stock’ architecture since the inception of TV. This architecture is optimized for roof top antenna reception with a high gain,” said Naik. “For a mobile phone with a negative gain antenna this results in spotty reception in a given coverage area.”

Naik said that modern architectures like single frequency networks attempt to solve this with multiple transmitters with a lower power (~6-60KW), but it is still inadequate for delivering uniform coverage on a mobile device. In contrast, Saankhya Labs is advocating a low power low tower, broadcast radio head (BRH) architecture wherein the transmitters radiate 20W to 100W and are co-located with 4G base stations. An architecture like this requires a lot of BRH (approximately one for every five to six 4G base stations), and that deployment begins to resemble a cellular architecture.

“This is what we mean by cellularizing the broadcast network. In conjunction with a converged core this can be used to offload OTT or unicast video to the broadcast network,” Naik said.

A big part of what Saankhya Labs is doing is geared toward providing mobile service providers with a way to offload mobile video traffic and ease network congestion. But, with an architecture like this in place, it is also possible to receive mobile TV on a connected device like a smartphone and receive live OTA TV in a connected vehicle. However, a few other aspects need to be in place before that can happen.

Besides Saankhya Lab’s BRH co-located architecture, there needs to be a set of network-side, cloud-based software components that use artificial intelligence techniques to manage the disparate networks, Naik said. He also said that Saankhya’s latest ATSC 3.0 receiver chip that enables digital broadcast reception needs to be in mobile phones.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is planning to roll out the Saankhya’s 5G broadcast BRH architecture as part of its ATSC 3.0 deployment plans, and will offer it as a service to mobile internet providers. The company believes BRH can succeed where LTE broadcast technologies like Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services (MBMS), as defined by 3GPP, have failed to catch on.

Mark Aitken, president of ONE Media (a Sinclair joint venture), said ATSC 3.0 is a broadcast television standard but behind the curtain it’s very much like a 5G standard. Because of that he said 5G broadcast mode will be pushed through GSMA to try to force adoption within 3GPP, where it will be pitched as an evolved next-gen standard with total alignment with 5G, all the way down to the lowest level of signaling.

Aitken said that Sinclair will announce the more than 30 ATSC 3.0 markets and that it expects to have some level of service with consumer devices in those markets. For receiving ATSC 3.0 and 5G broadcast signals, there are already dongles (USB or USB-C) and there are gateway devices which act as next-gen receivers for OTA content and distribute it across a Wi-Fi network so devices that don’t have ATSC 3.0 chipsets can get the broadcast content.

He said the third piece of the consumer device puzzle is getting chips embedded in the phone.

“That’s the pearly gates,” Aitken said.

Aitken said Sinclair has already met with large ODMs and is extending its offer of one million free chips and to jointly develop products. He said the timeline is six to eight months from signing a contract to having devices in hand.

After that, with an effective network architecture in place and consumer devices in the market, live OTA TV on mobile phones could become a new, disruptive reality and a significant part of the streaming video ecosystem.