Datacasting companies put best bit forward
Many manufacturers say the technology is ready for delivery
By Carl Lindemann -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/8/2001 8:00:00 PM
Just what is the future of datacasting? Potential run-ins with Congress and the FCC concerning spectrum use aside, many are banking on it as a way that broadcasters will get a return on investment on digital. Broadcasters set aside a few Mb/s of digital spectrum for delivery of data such as computer files and other information and then charge for the access to those bits. Those companies that are looking to help broadcasters receive that ROI will be at NAB, looking to attract broadcasters with their technology.
Mark Simpson, president and CEO of Triveni Digital, which will be exhibiting at NAB, says the show and 2001 will be a turning point for datacasting. "This will be a year where people will be looking for what to deploy," he says. "They won't just be exploring the options; they will be looking for business models that justify deployment."
Simpson isn't alone in his enthusiasm. But irrespective of whether the believers in datacasting are right about what the next few weeks will mean for the technology, one thing is certain: There will be a number of places in Las Vegas to check out datacasting technology, business models and services. Here's a sampling of what to expect at this year's convention.
Dotcast comes to NAB as the Dotcast Digital Network prepares for a national rollout. "With $90 million in funding and with broadcast partners in every major U.S. market, we're moved into the implementation phase," says James Elder, Dotcast's director of corporate communications.
After conducting trials through the fall, the company expects to launch a nationwide commercial network offering 4.5 Mb/s per tower throughput over analog systems and up to 10 Mb/s per tower on digital TV systems by the end of the year. Already, Dotcast has agreements with approximately 200 broadcasters. Broadcasters who allocate part of their unused spectrum to Dotcast will share in the revenues generated by new digital-content services.
The biggest news for NAB is that Harris Corp. will be Dotcast's strategic manufacturing and integration partner. Harris will take on the task of installing the Dotcaster Edge Server and other technology at all the local broadcast partners.
For Elder, this year's NAB is an opportunity to show that datacasting is a practical reality. "Our goal for NAB this year is to demonstrate to the technical community the progress we've made in our network development," he says. Dotcast will be located in the Harris booth.
iBlast, which has built its future around access to bandwidth for datacasting, will offer the first public demonstration of some of the potential services it could offer. One which iBlast CEO Michael Lambert is touting is the ability to use digital spectrum to give viewers the same experience they have in the hotel room. Once your mind gets back out of the gutter, it's clear he's talking about video on demand. Lambert has some big plans for datacasting, believing it frees viewers from the confines of schedules defined in programming guides. "Cheap storage at home is the magic that enables broadcasters to get into video on demand," he says. "It adds PVR capabilities to give users the ultimate choice. It gives the ability to stop, fast forward and rewind right in the living room."
Lambert also says that iBlast is working with the film industry to make this a viable means for digital distribution of movies. "We've found that the studios like the idea of video on demand. They like to control their product and 'window' through different media." Security is also a prime consideration. "Ours is a one-way system so you can't share it between users; it is very secure," he adds.
The rollout for the service will begin later this year, with coverage for at least 93% of U.S. television markets planned by 2002. Already, 251 TV stations are part of the iBlast network. iBlast will be located in a suite in the Mirage but will also have representation in the NDS booth.
Irdeto Access will be demonstrating its CypherCast at NAB. CypherCast is a datacasting application that the company says will help broadcasters generate new, consistent revenue. The conditional-access technology integrated in CypherCast follows proven pay-TV practices, according to Joe Zaller, vice president of marketing for Irdeto. "We've moved everything we've learned from pay-TV to the IP context. Applying these proven technologies can shake up the entire industry by delivering paying customers," says Zaller.
Irdeto has 30 years of experience in conditional-access and pay-TV. CypherCast enables stations to deliver subscription services to both clients over the air in IP form to set-top boxes or to PCs. The standard CypherCast platform can broadcast up to 1,000 individual multicast streams arrayed in up to 100 distinct program services for as many as 250,000 subscribers in a local viewing area. The system is scalable to handle millions of subscribers. "This is a very efficient way to get a lot of data to a lot of people," adds Zaller.
For Zaller, the challenge at NAB is more than technical. It is about thinking through the changes in the industry and adapting to them with new business models. "Broadcasters are comfortable with a 'fire and forget' approach," he notes. "Once the signal leaves the station, they're done. Before you can turn viewers into subscribers, you've got to get past that."
Zaller sees the changing technology following an earlier pattern. "It's analogous to when MPEG came out. Now, everyone knows that they have to do something about Internet IP. The only question is where to turn."
Is digital conversion an expense or an investment? It creates a new resource for stations. But to get a return on this means going beyond TV's traditional business. SpectraRep's vision is to provide a broadband wireless digital network for business-to-business data distribution, giving partner stations the opportunity to turn digital data capabilities into revenues.
SpectraRep came together in February 2000 as a separate company within the BIA Financial Network. "Within BIA, we were working with Internet people that had content to deliver and also digital TV people with the pipes to do it," says Mark O'Brien, SpectraRep's executive vice president. Putting these two together filled an obvious need. For clients, this means serving as a one-stop solution for distributing content. "We're like the general contractor you hire when you build a house," adds O'Brien. "They are responsible for getting the house built, though they don't swing a hammer or use a saw. We take care of it soup-to-nuts by partnering with companies like Wavexpress and Triveni."
The advantage for business-to-business customers is that they have a single point of contact in managing the project. "The biggest segment we're targeting is proprietary video streaming," adds O'Brien. "Many companies have already equipped employees with laptops. That's great. But the only way to really connect them with what's going on is by multicasting high-bandwidth streaming content."
For broadcasters, partnership with SpectraRep follows a familiar business model. "We're not asking for bandwidth that we control but a commitment for us to go represent the stations," says O'Brien. "It's much the same way that national ad reps have inventory and go out to sell it. It's like selling avails: not controlling it, just representing it."
One of the highlights for SpectraRep at NAB will be hosting a live over-the-air datacasting event. The demonstration will use Sun Microsystem equipment and Triveni's technology to datacast show content over KLAS-DT (ch. 7). The company will have a suite in the Las Vegas Hilton (room 950) and a presence at the Triveni booth on the show floor.
Thomcast Communications "OPAL" is the key element of the company's data-broadcasting solution. Based on a rack-mounted Windows NT server with DVB-SPI (LVDS) and ASI interfaces, OPAL takes advantage of OpenMux real-time multiplexing kernel in order to broadcast Internet or data files over ATSC and DVB-compliant terrestrial, cable, and satellite networks.
OPAL can handle up to 50 data inputs and allocate outgoing bandwidth based either on preset minimum/maximum data rates or statistical IP rate allocation. The system can also store multiple configurations. This means that DTV broadcasters can work out the maximum bandwidth available for data broadcasting in a variety of video scenarios (i.e. whether the video broadcast is in SD or HD). They then have a series of templates stored and ready which can be switched between as circumstances dictate. OPAL can feed any third party multiplexer; however, it is even more powerful when combined with AMBER (Thomcast's remultiplexer) in a solution called Smart Data Pack.
The advantage to Smart Data Pack is in the way that it adds data without affecting the main program stream "because it is really an add-on to the DTV broadcast chain," says Jean Macher, Thomcast product manager. "What this means is that you never have the data, jeopardizing the main video stream. The SmartData pack also allows broadcasters to optimize the full 19.4 Mbps of their transport stream by replacing null packets with intelligent data."
Mark Simpson, CEO, thinks the move to business models is a major shift from last year. "Now, deployments and implementations are not just timely but possible. The technology is ready. Our infrastructure is now tied into a better collection of end-to-end- solutions." With this in mind, the Triveni Digital booth is being designed to showcase the entire data-broadcasting universe. "We're focusing on showing a wide range of applications from partners. These give an overview of the possibilities for the technology and give people ideas as to how they can make money right away."
Triveni will also be featuring new versions of its own products including SkyScraper 2.0. The latest version of the end-to-end DTV platform will have increased robustness and an enhanced feature set. Also, an upgrade to StreamScope will give simpler visual representations of content streams and PSIP (Program and Systems Information Protocol) tables. Another product, StreamBridge, is new to NAB this year. It is a real-time translator for PSIP data in ATSC transport streams. The company says this is essential where signals originating in a central point are rebroadcast through other stations—a common situation for public broadcasters.
When the Internet first took off, some said TV viewers would quickly opt for the new medium. But audiences have not treated this as an either/or situation. Wavexpress will be demonstrating a product that takes advantage of the way many use both simultaneously. "Already, you've got 27 million people who are 'telewebbing' (going online with the TV on)," says Brian Hickey, Wavexpress' vice president of marketing. In dual use, TV viewing has become a background activity. "It turns the television into a radio. The only time telewebbers look to the TV is when they hear something that draws them back." Wavexpress is looking to resolve that situation with its TVTonic Web browser, an open platform product that allows for surfers to surf and watch related or non-related TV content with the help of an analog or digital TV-tuner card. "It puts TV on the PC, giving the telewebbing community what it wants," adds Hickey. TVTonic also addresses what Hickey sees as the other great trend in TV viewing: time shifting. "TVTonic will have PVR functionality without needing anything except a PC."
TVTonic also has tools that will allow broadcasters to create custom-produced Web sites wrapped around standard television programs.
For Hickey, enabling telewebbing is also a natural way to draw audiences to datacasting. "The end game is in datacasting. We are developing a consumer relationship to help migrate people to data broadcasting through terrestrial broadcasters."
Wavexpress will have a demonstration suite at the Hilton and will be sharing booth space with Triveni Digital.
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