The Datacasting Charge

Dotcast grabs new viewers by providing niche content

Bits spell bucks. At least that's the hope of the datacasting industry, which wants to fill unused bits on an analog or digital broadcast signal with content that can be viewed on a TV or PC. Leo Hoarty, founder and CTO of datacast-technology provider Dotcast, is gaining traction with the help of Disney's Moviebeam system. Customers in select markets install a Moviebeam receiver and have access to more than 100 movies each week. Local stations then datacast files to the receiver over their analog signal. Hoarty discussed the technology withB&C.

What equipment does a station require in order to do datacasting?

It's now reasonably straightforward. There is a rack of equipment that receives the content, like a PC-class server to cache that content and transfer it into data carousels to be transmitted. The secret sauce is our rack-mounted modulator that connects to the station's transmitter and adds a high-speed data subcarrier to the analog broadcast transmitter. We're basically adding a digital data carrier to a slot that was previously empty.

Do you get involved with things like improving video compression?

No. We're more like Federal Express. We use a fixed-speed over-the-air pipe that can be dialed up to 4.2 megabits per second [Mbps] or down to 1 Mbps, depending on how much reach you want. What determines our efficiency is over-the-air phenomena, like terrain or multipath interference. But the video-compression technique is up to the customer. Moviebeam uses MPEG-2.

What's your sense of MPEG-4? What could it mean to datacasting?

It will significantly increase the throughput of the channel. But the success of datacasting is entirely content-dependent. There is plenty of bandwidth in the digital channels, but the indoor reception issues are a bit problematic. There are plenty of bits in the air, but it's worthwhile content that will determine datacasting's success.

You mention content, something that broadcasters and cable networks have in abundance. How should they approach datacasting?

There's an opportunity for certain content on demand. What datacasting does, if it's done well, is create a digital shelf for content. We're sending a persistent datastream to the Moviebeam box. Every time the consumer turns on the service, they see 100 feature films with 15 new ones. They have no idea how they got there, but there's a sliding shelf of content that is always on the box.

If it's done right, there's a lot of opportunity to offer a digital shelf of interesting stuff from any of the content owners, whether it's ESPN highlights or HBO doing something itself.

It's possible that Viacom could use CBS stations to datacast HBO or MTV content, and ABC could do the same with ESPN or Disney Channel. Will someone, someday, throw the shackles off their business model and decide to experiment?

What drives those business models is complicated. Just look at what is happening with digital media and audio. That's a good example of content owners' sorting out how to approach the digital era. It's still very problematic.

It seems like one could blast out the whole prime time lineup and have it waiting on the drive for viewing at any time. Do you think that will happen?

One day, we'll get there. But I think there are still lots of viewers who have routines. They want to come home, turn on the TV and veg out. The trouble with the always-on-demand model is you never know what you want to see. The element of surprise, of accidentally tuning to something that catches your eye, will be with us for a long time.