Inside Imagine Communications: The IC Selfie Files

John Mailhot

CTO, Networking & Infrastructure
Imagine Communications

  • University: MIT
  • Degrees: B.S. Computer Science and B.S. Electrical Engineering
  • Years in the industry: 27
  • Patents: 4
  • Favorite science-fiction Show: Stargate SG-1
  • Favorite Monty Python Bit: None (but is fan of 1985 movie Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam)
  • StarTrek or Star Wars: Star Trek

The greatest resource of any innovative technology company is the human kind. Behind all of our cutting-edge technologies, patents, Emmy® awards and other industry accolades are some of the smartest and most dedicated people you’ll ever want to meet. That’s why we’re proud to bring you the Imagine Communications Selfie Files, an up-close-and-personal encounter with a few of the people who make our company hum.  This week we visit with Networking and Infrastructure CTO John Mailhot, a 27-year broadcasting veteran and marching band parent who was made a SMPTE Fellow this week.

How did you get your start in the broadcast industry?

John: Back in 1990, when I was at Bell Labs working on military avionics, I was recruited to be on a team that was building a prototype high-definition system for the FCC/ACATS process. AT&T Bell Labs was partnered with Zenith in the project, which led eventually to the formation of the digital HDTV “Grand Alliance.” I later served as the technical lead for the Grand Alliance encoder, which my team at Bell Labs built in collaboration with other Grand Alliance members, leading to HDTV field testing in 1995, and eventual adoption as the ATSC standard in many countries around the world.  An interesting asterisk in my resume is that I never worked with the analog NTSC system. I’ve been involved on the digital side from day 1.  

What are some of the things you’ve worked on at Imagine that you’re most proud of?

John: I’m certainly proud that High-Definition Digital Television has been so widely deployed around the world, and glad to have been a part of it.  More recently, I’m pleased with the Selenio MCP product line. That was really the first project that brought together expertise across the different technology companies that made up what was then Harris Broadcast.  Not only was it an organizational achievement to meld all of that diverse experience into a common architecture, I’m also proud that Selenio MCP has been, and continues to be, a commercial success. I’ve been fortunate to have been architecturally responsible for several large-scale systems that have achieved significant market traction and industry acceptance, including the Harris Flexicoder and NetVX platforms.   Now, as an industry we’re driving the transition from SDI to an IP packet-based infrastructure. It’s quite an engineering challenge (and fun) to be part of such a large-scale transition.

What does becoming a SMPTE fellow mean to you?

John: It’s rewarding to be recognized for the body of work. I’ve been plugging away at improving the television infrastructure for the past 25 years. Along the way, I guess enough people have felt that I possessed the skills in the art to be a SMPTE fellow and I’m very pleased about that.  

You’ve seen a lot of change in the industry over the years, how would you categorize what is happening now in terms of the transition to IP/COTS?

John: The transition to IP is being driven by a whole set of macroeconomic trends on both the equipment side and the content-production side. We’re moving toward doing television over COTS/IT equipment because of scalability in large systems, and flexibility for the future.  In television, engineering and infrastructure isn’t the interesting part — content is the interesting part.  Getting the content produced, deployed and delivered to the end customer, with the right ads on it, that’s what really matters. Scalable IP/IT infrastructure lets us shift away from the traditional broadcast chains approach inside the plant to an anything-can-talk-to-anything design approach, where additional air chains or other equipment can be “spun up” on the fly from a pool of computing resources.  The consumption model of television is changing rapidly — the days of families sitting and watching the big box on the wall are rapidly fading, and the content producers are making and distributing more versions and variations of programs all the time. 

What advice do you have for engineers now confronting this transition?

John: Like all transitions before it, the transition to IP should be done at its natural pace in each situation. The key is to be aggressive about learning about the technology and investing the time to learn it. We, as an industry, are inventing this together. In human terms, it’s a lot like the transition from analog to digital. Some broadcast engineers chose to learn digital and others chose to grow out their gray beards and go fishing. My beard is certainly graying, but I’m into this IP thing.

What will the job description of a television engineer look like in five years?

John: I don’t know that it will be significantly different from what it is now; I think it’s already changed quite a bit. If you look at today’s TV plant, there’s already a significant amount of IP infrastructure that’s critical to the on-air chain, especially in the file, edit, and playout workflows. The engineering organization has already learned how to keep their IP-based operations on the air. This next part of the transition is moving live workflow into IP infrastructure and then ultimately into virtual/on-demand resource models.

What are you working on now that gets you excited about the future?

John: The key to this IP infrastructure transition is having a well-developed set of technology standards that interoperate across vendors. I’ve been deeply involved in putting together the SMPTE 2110 standards, which will be a lynchpin in the transition to IP. These standards are coming together quickly, everyone in the industry is participating, and they are close to being finished.  It’s very exciting. Also, these new standards already include support for UHD, which will help that transition go more smoothly.

Where do you think the next big wave of innovation will be focused?

John: The systemization of HDR (High Dynamic Range) and really getting HDR looking good all the way to the home will make a big improvement in consumer picture quality.  HDR is a complicated topic and for it to work it has to work all the way through the process — from shooting to watching. When it all comes together, it looks great.

What’s the one thing about you that would likely surprise your colleagues across the industry?

John: I have a passion for being a high school marching band parent. All my kids have been in the school marching band, which is a really big deal in the part of New Jersey where I live. I’m at a competition nearly every weekend throughout the fall.


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