HDTV lands on some computers /
Trial merges television, the Web
By Carlene Hempel STAFF WRITER
When Scott Langdon gets on his wife’s nerves, she sends him downstairs to the basement. And he loves when that happens – because there, in one corner of his small entertainment room, is “The Experiment.” Langdon is one of about 200 people throughout the Triangle participating in a pilot program run by Capitol Broadcasting to test a new method of delivering TV programming and Web pages to people’s computers.
DTV Plus, launched by Raleigh-based Capitol, which also owns the WRAL and FOX 50 TV stations, uses the broadcast spectrum to send the data the same way it transmits a TV signal. In fact, it’s so high-tech it’s almost low-tech: Most of the participants simply put rabbit ears on top of their computers to capture the signal. There is no need to connect to the Internet with this technology. There isn’t even a modem involved. The data simply comes tumbling from WRAL’s TV tower in Clayton, through the air, into the computers. And by the way, the television signal comes in too, so the pilot participants are getting high definition television (HDTV) on their computers as well.
“I tell my friends, ‘Hey, I’ve got high definition TV on my desktop.’ It’s a manly thing,” says Langdon, an Apex resident and a sales manager for Intermedia Communications, a Raleigh-based Internet service provider. He brags, but he’s also not afraid to admit it took him a while to wrap his mind around the concept. “When I first heard about it, I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. I still don’t,” he says, laughing. “They’re broadcasting Web pages to you and you’re like, well, what does that mean? Conceptually, it’s tough.”
The concept is this: WRAL, led by Jim Goodmon, was the first television station in the country to broadcast its signal as digital data – as HDTV – as opposed to the traditional analog data that most stations still use. The spectrum that WRAL uses to send its digital broadcast is wide enough for the station to fit other streams of data into it. So, if the high definition television takes up only some of the band, the rest can be used to broadcast other channels, or, as it turns out, Web data. And they can do it up to 300 times faster than a 56-kilobyte modem – which is what more than 90 percent of Internet users have. “The data comes in and sits on your hard drive and you can look at it,” says Goodmon, who plans to expand the pilot program by an additional 100 families, and put the technology through at least two more test phases. “We can send you anything you want. But you are not connected to the Internet.”
The idea isn’t entirely new. There are other models for wireless technology on the market. BlueTooth technology, for example, developed by Ericsson, promises to connect appliances using low-cost, short-range radio links rather than a phone-based connection to the Internet. The Palm VII and some Sprint PCS phones can receive data wirelessly, using the same network of towers that cellular phone traffic travels over. But what Goodmon is doing is a bit different. Those other services are two-way, meaning data such as e-mail can be received and sent back out. DTV Plus is one-way communication, meaning the recipients can only receive through this broadcast spectrum. They have to dial up the Web when they want to send e-mail or surf around.
Also, those other services have bandwidth limitations: There is only so much data that can be sent at any one time over that frequency range. The broadcast spectrum has more capacity to transmit more data. And, unlike Web connections through a modem, there are no bottlenecks, or slowdowns based on how many other people are connected to the Web. (That was the downfall of PointCast in 1998, a Seattle-based company that used “push” technology to deliver news, weather and sports scores to the screen savers of users who were on a networked connection: The technology clogged servers and cluttered hard drives.) “In real terms, this means we can push MP3 files, we can push whole Web sites, we can push video on demand, we can push news groups, we can push e-mail, we can push all these types of data,” says Sam Matheny, vice president and general manager for DTV Plus. “When Goodmon saw that – the idea that WRAL’s Web site is on your desktop and you never logged on – that’s when he said, ‘let’s go.’ “
To participate in the program, the volunteers had to have at least a 200 MHz Pentium II computer with 128 megabytes of RAM, Windows 98 operating system and at least 500 megabytes of hard disk space, or about half a gigabyte. Each was given a video card so the computer could display the data, an HDTV tuner card to tune the channel and makes sense of the data, a TV antenna and the software to manage the data. So far, WRAL’s Web site and its content – weather, traffic, sports, news – is delivered to the participants, as well as select news groups and a coupon service. The signal is programmed to constantly write over the content with new material, so it’s always fresh, and the hard drives don’t get cluttered with junk.
Kevin Eberwein, database administrator for the North Carolina General Assembly, is another pilot member. He used a pair of $15 rabbit ears to get it to work. And now, he’s happily hooked. “I usually watch ‘Survivor’ on Wednesday nights on the computer because it’s broadcast in HDTV. The TV I have now is a regular TV,” he says. “Even watching it on a computer, the image is a lot clearer and crisper.”
It’s the kind of convergence – TV and the Web – that analysts have been talking about for years. Except that Goodmon says he’s not trying to replace traditional TV. In fact, he’s not entirely sure what’s going to happen. “I have no financial model for this,” he says. The hope is that DTV Plus can sell its service to other markets once everyone else comes online with digital television by 2002, as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. “We have no idea of trying to replace the Internet either. That’s not our game,” Matheny says. “If we could take the content that you are most interested in, that you check all the time, so it’s just there, boom, when you want it, there’s great value in that.”
But that’s still a few test phases down the road. Today, they’re still listening to what 200 pilot members have to say. That they can come home late from work, flip on the computer and watch the news – either at 6 or 11 on the “TV window” or whenever they want, because it’s been saved on their hard drive. That they can see the latest sports scores and weather, without waiting for the Web connection to dial up. That they can read their messages from news groups, without all that downloading. And that they want more. Eberwein, for example, is pining for the day when WRAL sends entire books or movies across for him to watch. “Think about it. If they figure out a way to do movies on demand that you can turn around and watch it at your leisure? This has areas where it will definitely blow the pants off the Internet.”
Reprinted from the final August 16th edition of the News and Observer Business Section, page D1. Copyright 2000 by The News & Observer Publishing Company.