CBC’s Spin On The Digital Spectrum

CBC’s Spin On The Digital Spectrum

In typical Jim Goodmon fashion, Capitol Broadcasting Company has plunged into the next new wave of digital technology, the broadcasting of data along with the over-the-air digital television signal. This is currently referred to as “datacasting.” Four CBC divisions are working together to explore the possibilities of datacasting and the implications therein. They are DTV Plus, Microspace, WRAL Online, and WRAL Digital.

Now that digital television is more mainstream, the media is turning its attention to this new and coming technology as well. Sam Matheny, VP and General Manager for DTV Plus, helps try to explain this complicated technology to Peter Brown from Broadcasting and Cable, and put it into a business perspective.

Story from the Broadcasting and Cable: January 31, 2000

The promise of datacasting Digital spectrum
may yield new businesses, additional revenue for broadcasters
By Peter J. Brown
Broadcasting and Cable

As broadcasters mull over potential business plans for DTV, the idea of using their digital spectrum to broadcast data to both TVs and PCs is becoming attractive. Although data broadcasting in the NTSC world has been held back by the small bandwidth of the analog VBI (the vertical blanking interval, a portion of the NTSC signal where closed-captioning and V-chip data are sent), the 19.4-Mb/s MPEG-2 compressed digital stream provides exceptional capacity for data.

Broadcasters could transmit a high-definition program and associated data, or a standard-definition picture and multiple Web pages, simultaneously within a 6 MHz digital channel. What type of data DTV stations will send, and how they’ll make money off doing so, remains an open question.

Even the most proactive “datacasters” are still in a trial mode, mainly because of the small number of DTV receiver cards available to PC users. “When some people are talking about datacasting, they talk about wireless Internet only or rebroadcasting repurposed TV content,” says Seth Grossman, senior vice president of corporate development and CFO at West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Paxson Communications. “We can offer content, but we are a pipeline, a very big pipeline, as well. It has taken a while for people to develop this particular robust piece of spectrum, and now people are starting to migrate toward what makes sense.” Paxson is evaluating all the datacasting platforms, he says: “People want to know how to make money off it and, for example, if an advertiser-driven model is really the best way to proceed.”

The feasibility of datacasting increases with the development of new digital tools, such as MPEG-4 compression, which can move multimedia at very low bit rates, industry experts say. “MPEG-4 adds a lot more tools in terms of what you can do on the content-preparation side,” says Marty Stein, senior marketing director for San Diego, Calif.-based Motorola Broadband Communications Sector (formerly General Instrument Corp.), which has partnered with Phoenix-based Wavo Corp. “It is also ideal for a layered approach to digital content delivery. Among other things, MPEG-4 offers a much better way to present half-screen and quarter-screen windows on a TV or PC screen.”

Various datacasting trials are gaining momentum. NBC and Intel Corp. conducted a six-week test last fall involving roughly 500 homes, using a satellite-based transmission to simulate a 2-Mb/s off-air datacast stream. Young viewers were able to watch enhanced TNBC (Teen NBC) programming, slated to launch later this year, according to Jonathan Boltax, director of the enhanced broadcast group at NBC in New York City. “We did something which we understand has never been done before,” he says. “Viewers in these homes were provided with data, along with TNBC programming. We also sent them background files at the same time, allowing the viewers to engage in teen-related content after the shows were completed under the banner `TNBC To Go,’ throughout the week, not just during the broadcast. We did not conduct this trial specifically for technology reasons. We wanted to see our viewers’ reactions to data in the digital space.”

Granite Broadcasting is beginning datacasting trials this week at KNTV San Jose, Calif., using data-insertion gear supplied by Harris Corp. and developed by SkyStream Networks. KNTV-DT will use SkyStream’s media routers to insert multiple RealVideo streams into its digital signal. Granite also plans to experiment with broadcasting Internet content at KBWB San Francisco later this month. “Right now, we’re in experimental mode, and we’re trying to figure out what will interest the consumer,” says Molly Glover, director of Internet marketing and new-media development.

DTV Plus, a division of Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh, N.C., has been working closely with Intel’s Center for Datacasting Innovation (CDI) on its own series of datacasting trials, using Capitol Broadcasting’s facility in Raleigh, WRAL-DT, as a transmission site. DTV Plus uses a relatively simple array of hardware to get the datacasting job done, according to Sam Matheny, vice president and general manager of DTV Plus. Microspace, another division of Capitol Broadcasting, provides the satellite receiver.

At WRAL-DT, the datastreams are managed and metered by Skyscraper, a rack-mounted PC running Windows NT 4.0 with a 100BaseT or 10BaseT Ethernet link provided by LG Electronics Research Center of America (LGERCA), Princeton Junction, N.J. The outbound datastream is fed into a Thomcast Opal IP-MPEG-2 gateway, which inserts the data into the MPEG-2 transport stream, and then everything passes into a Divicom encoder and multiplexer before heading out to the WRAL-HD transmitter. The data streams are received by AT-1000 model PC receiver cards, also supplied by LGERCA.

Matheny says he is quite pleased by the performance of the overall system. “We are providing people access to DTV on their computer, as well as broadband data services. It is also worth noting that the LGERCA AT-1000 receiver card has both S-video and composite video outputs as well as multichannel audio.” This will allow users to view the DTV signal on their existing television set. “In this instance,” he adds, “we have 2 Mb/s allocated to data as our baseline, and we certainly can increase this allocation. We can mix, match and vary whatever it is we want to do, such as broadcast the WRAL Web site at 500 Kb/s or broadcast MP3 files at 500 Kb/s. We have done full software downloads, full-motion video files and Wave files. The LG solution is robust.”

Many datacasting proponents credit Menlo Park, Calif.-based Geocast with drawing the spotlight to the viability of the datacasting business model. Providing a complete system including content, transport, a platform and software is the company’s objective. By partnering with and securing investments from Belo, Hearst-Argyle, Liberty Media and Electronic Arts and by signing on with a major consumer electronics company to produce DTV receivers, Geocast has revved up the industry’s buzz about datacasting considerably. Geocast announced in December that Thomson multimedia has invested $15 million in the venture and will handle development, manufacturing and sales of an RCA-branded Geocast receiver that will store DTV data and connect to a PC to display it.

Geocast demonstrated the product at the CES show in Las Vegas and plans a field trial with Granite Broadcasting’s KNTV-DT in San Jose, Calif., that will get under way in April. But that’s only the start of Geocast’s ramp-up, says Vice President of Network Engineering and Operations Charles Jablonski. “There is tons of stuff that has to be done, like buying a satellite transponder and building a network operations center,” he says. “It all amounts to a bunch of tasks that need to be executed in the right order. We need to find a way to get data out to the stations, among other things. We are platform-independent, and broadcasting represents just one leg of our strategy.” Jablonski left his former employer, NBC, where he had served for almost 15 years in various engineering capacities, to join a growing Geocast staff that includes alumni of Netscape, SGI, DirecTV, IBM, the NAB and the FCC”.

“Broadcasters recognize that datacasting is a near-term moneymaker, whereas DTV is probably a little way out,” says Geocast CEO Jim Ramo. “Our approach is to cache rich media and video and to do so in an always-cache-on mode. We don’t want the caching to be done on a PC for two reasons: Some people simply turn off their PC, and the PC hard drive would be too difficult to manage.”

DTV Plus’ Matheny is apparently not so concerned about feeding datacasts directly into consumers’ PCs, regardless of whether or not they are left on all the time. “Ideally, folks would leave their computers on and be capturing data,” he says. “If they elect not to, they can still use our system, although they will have to allow time after booting up for their systems to build or refresh the cache. However, this should not take long since we have a broadband system.”

With the introduction of DTV receiver cards by such companies as Hauppauge Digital Inc., Hauppauge, N.Y., which rolled out its $299 WinTV-D PC card last fall (an HD version will be available shortly), consumer electronics retailers like Best Buy can slowly begin growing the retail market for datacasting client devices. Several broadcasters are already using WinTV-D cards in datacasting trials. But, initially, PC cards are viewed as a way for interested viewers to access DTV without spending large sums on a DTV or HDTV set. “We display DTV on a PC,” says Hauppauge Digital CEO Ken Plotkin. “We support datacasting, although most consumers don’t care about it. The demand thus far has been with data trials, not with consumers.”

How fast will the retail side of the datacasting business materialize? For datacasting to succeed, it better happen sooner rather than later, according to Wavo director of system integration Joel Fear. “There is no cookie-cutter solution when it comes to the broadcasters and datacasting,” says Fear. “Broadcasters have to do whatever it takes to make rapid inroads into retail channels. Datacasting needs more than passive support. As we are witnessing in the broadband sector, markets like this often need a quick boost. This muscle must come from broadcasters and the consumer electronics manufacturers. They have to determine what is necessary from a financial standpoint to make datacasting a reality.”

Comments are closed.