Rosy future but still in the red

BIA Financial Network symposium highlights datacasting issues

The prospects for digital datacasting appear bright, but broadcasters shouldn't expect wireless data revenues to come streaming in tomorrow.

That was the message from BIA Financial Network's datacasting conference in Washington, where more than 150 broadcasters and technology executives gathered last month to discuss the new medium.

While the conference's main intent was to pitch SpectraRep, a new division of BIA Financial Network aimed at helping broadcasters lease part of their DTV spectrum for wireless data services, it also highlighted significant technology and business issues that need to be resolved for datacasting to be a success.

PBS Director of Engineering Andy Butler reminded attendees that the datacasting delivery standard, ATSC S13, is still being voted on and its consumer counterpart, DASE (DTV Application Software Environment), remains undefined. Authoring one's own data content, as PBS has done with several "enhanced broadcasts," is a significant undertaking, he said, noting that current broadcast hardware and software aren't equipped to handle ancillary data.

"Having a CD-ROM linked to broadcast automation looks like a terrible idea," said Butler. "But it was the only way we could do Frank Lloyd Wright. Scheduling data events is entirely new for automation vendors."

Letting third parties such as Internet- content providers lease part of your spectrum and program their own service may not be as easy as it seems, Butler cautioned.

He predicts that broadcasters will still need to monitor the data content being distributed within their DTV channels. "We as broadcasters are traditionally expected to be responsible for every piece of content we air," he said.

The debate over the current digital modulation standard grew heated, of course, as executives from Sinclair and Zenith traded barbs (B & C, June 26) over the relative merits of 8-VSB and COFDM. But Robert Pepper, chief of the FCC's Office of Plans and Policy, encouraged broadcasters to move ahead with the standard they have.

"If we were to switch modulation schemes,.there would be a time delay to market," he said. "You can't delay. We think it's critically important that broadcasters move forward in developing products and content."

That viewpoint was shared by Intel General Manager of New-Business Development Joe Huseonica, who said he is "frustrated" by DTV's rate of deployment. Huseonica, who runs an in-house venture-capital fund that invests in employees' ideas for new businesses, wants to use the DTV spectrum to create a "virtual viewing" service that would distribute movies and cache them on PC hard drives, allowing consumers to enjoy a simulated video-on-demand experience.

"At this juncture, I'm a bit disappointed," said Huseonica. "I was hoping to invest millions of dollars in an application [based on] the ATSC pipe. But it seems you're 18 to 24 months, at minimum, from broad deployment."

A more bullish outlook for datacasting came from Rob Glidden, broadband and digital media manager for Sun Microsystems. Through his consulting work with Internet companies, Glidden is convinced that an "enormous demand" exists for broadcasters' DTV spectrum.

"You don't have to find the business model. It will find you," he said.

Those wireless opportunities, albeit vague, are what SpectraRep is selling to broadcasters. The company has circulated letters of interest to stations, asking them to sign up and commit 3 Mb/s of their DTV spectrum to the new venture. SpectraRep will then shop that 3 Mb/s to wireless data customers, and in return broadcasters will receive a share of revenues and an equity stake in the firm.