Is data the big fish that got away?
Two years ago data broadcasting was catching the enthusiastic interest of broadcasters looking for additional revenue streams from their investments in the DTV transition. The action was intense, as one company after another announced intentions to develop data broadcast services, and the signing of affiliates in markets large and small. Geocast, dotcast, DTVPlus, iBlast, Spectra Rep, Wavexpress …everyone was casting their bait into the DTV stream, hoping for the big strike.
Today, a business plan that will turn data broadcasting into a viable business remains elusive. At almost every turn, datacasting has become snagged by the DTV transition. Questions about modulation and reception have cast doubt on the viability of DTV broadcasting to push IP data and digital media content to the masses.
Questions about the use of the DTV channel to compete with other broadband services have been raised by Congress. This despite the fact that ancillary services were authorized by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and implementation guidelines and a fee structure for ancillary services have been adopted by the FCC.
Questions about the allocation of bits for these new services have been raised by the broadcast networks, apparently concerned about the impact on the delivered quality of HDTV programming and/or the ability to entice affiliates to carry data services provided by the networks.
And the question of how to deploy a sufficient quantity of data-broadcast-capable receivers to enable a viable business remains unanswered.
Today, the only platform that exists for data broadcasting is a PC, to which one must add a DTV receiver board that costs between $300 and $500. External receivers that interface with a PC via USB or Firewire have been developed for the DVB-T standard, but not for ATSC. The limited number of ATSC-capable set-top boxes that have been deployed do not support the ATSC A-90 data broadcast standard, nor any proprietary standards for data broadcasting.
The collapse of the dotcoms, not to mention the downturn in television ad revenues, didn’t help. Geocast was unable to line up additional funding and pulled the plug March 1, 2001. iBlast managed to secure additional funding, and is now testing the first of more than a dozen proposed services in Los Angeles. DTVPlus, a joint venture with WRAL-DT, recently launched TotalCast, the first regularly scheduled data broadcast service, in Raleigh/Durham, NC.
WRAL-DT and WRAZ-DT are providing TotalCast services. Dotcast is working with Disney to develop a system that will use both analog and digital broadcasts to deliver movies to local cache storage for consumption on demand. Meanwhile SpectraRep has focused on business-to-business applications, using encrypted DTV broadcasts to deliver bits for a variety of private data and video applications.
The PC remains at the center of the datacasting pond, in large measure because of the rapid proliferation of new forms of digital media, based upon the Internet’s TCP/IP packet data standards. The Web’s HTML has been augmented by new streaming media capabilities that are beginning to challenge traditional media such as TV and radio. The programmable nature of the PC makes it a natural environment to support an embryonic technology such as datacasting. The limitations of hardwired digital set-top box designs preclude the addition of support for new data broadcast services. The PC enables entrepreneurs and early adopters to test the waters of this new medium in hopes of landing the killer app that will drive DTV into millions of homes.
To address this opportunity, a wide range of companies, with technologies relevant to the development of the markets for datacasting, have formed the PC DTV Promoters Group. Member companies offer technology or services that enable PC users to receive digitally broadcast signals from terrestrial stations, cable services or satellite providers. Products include DTV receiver cards, HDTV software decoders, Enhanced TV viewers, antenna selection guides, OpenCable boxes and data broadcasting services.
Business models for datacasting
Despite the lack of success with datacasting to date, there are those who share the optimistic spirit of a fisherman who would prefers to sit waiting for a strike, rather than sitting behind a desk.
Pete Lude’ is vice president of broadcast engineering for iBlast, headquartered in Beverly Hills. Lude’ believes that the current DTV transmission standard is solid enough to build a viable datacasting service upon. “High-speed cable and DSL data services can’t reach everyone today. We can reach more potential customers than cable or DSL in most markets.” iBlast counts among its affiliates 255 TV stations in 156 markets.
Still, Lude’ concedes that the real question is “What is the business model?”
Hoping to answer that question, iBlast is in the alpha testing phase of a new service called Powercast. The service is PC-centric and will deliver news, entertainment, movie trailers and program reviews, with content being provided by iBlast investors.
In Raleigh/Durham, WRAL-DT continues to expand its commitment to DTV on multiple fronts. Recently the station began regular newscasts in HDTV, and moved from the testing phase to deployment of the TotalCast service in collaboration with DTVPlus and AccessDTV. TotalCast is a service of DTV Plus that broadcasts broadband content directly to personal computers using the digital television signal. Current content includes video-on-demand from WRAL news, a custom news microsite from WRAL.com, computer games, short films, software and other local programming.
Products that integrate analog television/cable tuners and personal video recording capabilities for PCs have been selling briskly. But the total number of consumers using DTV datacasting services today may still number in the hundreds. The story is much the same as in the aftermath of the dotcom bust — the development of business-to-consumer services were overhyped.
But action on the Internet has shifted to business-to-business applications. Most businesses have broadband capabilities, a critical enabling technology for applications enhanced with bandwidth-hungry digital media. Before its demise, Geocast was beginning to focus on these applications. Many of the applications that iBlast is currently developing are focused on the business-to-business markets. The most successful business focused on this opportunity is SpectraRep.
SpectraRep bridges the gap between the content provider and local content distributors by bringing together a complete broadband data solution. SpectraRep does this using satellite delivery of content to a local broadcast station that then becomes the hub of a local wireless streaming media network. A major factor that helps make this business model work is that the DTV broadcast infrastructure is used much like an STL. Each reception site benefits from a fixed professional antenna installation and any equipment required for bridging into the facility’s analog TV or data networks.
For example, working with its affiliate, KLAS-DT in Las Vegas, Spectra Rep has created distribution networks focused on the trade show business in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas and Sands Convention Centers and a number of area hotels are equipped to receive and distribute the data broadcast from KLAS-DT. Applications include the delivery of IP data and streaming media to sites inside the convention centers, and the delivery of multiple channels of trade show-related video for distribution via hotel cable TV systems.
Cooperation among broadcasters
John Able once headed up the powerful National Association of Broadcasters. He left to pursue what appeared to be an opportunity of epic proportions, assembling a team of broadcast industry veterans at Geocast. After years of struggling to build a viable datacasting business, Able is now providing consulting services, mostly unrelated to DTV.
According to Able there has been too much focus on the DTV transmission system, rather than on more critical issues. “There’s not much focus on receivers … not much focus on the business model for digital television.”
What’s needed to get the DTV transition moving?
According to Able, one major problem is that the broadcasters have no relationship with the end user, and sometimes tenuous relationships with each other. “Broadcasters are accustomed to dealing with content providers and advertisers; there is no infrastructure for dealing with customers.”
Able believes that for DTV to be successful broadcasters must work together to develop a competitive business model. “First and foremost, they need a receiving device that supports existing television sets. It must support outputs to many devices at multiple resolutions, and it needs lots of local cache storage to support entertainment and data services.”
Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and hosts and moderates the Open DTV Forum.
Congressional subcommittees of the Justice and Commerce committees held hearings about the proposed merger of DirecTV and Dish Networks on Dec. 4, 2001. As if to demonstrate just how confusing these issues are, at these hearings, most Congressmen took positions for or against the proposed DBS merger, but they did not divide down party lines, or along rural/urban lines.
The fundamental question is who's competing with whom?
If the merger is viewed from the narrow perspective that DirecTV competes only with DISH Networks, it seems clear that the merger would be denied. But DISH and DirecTV argued that the real competitor is cable, and that they need economies of scale to compete more effectively.
A key factor in the debate is carriage of local broadcast signals via the DBS services. Since DirecTV and DISH are competing for the largest markets, where they can reach more potential subscribers, they duplicate the local signals they carry. New spot beam satellites are on the way that will make it possible to carry more local broadcast channels, but there would be better synergy if the competing DBS services did not need to duplicate both local channels and the 100 to 200 national channels they deliver today. At the hearings they promised to deliver all local signals to 100 markets, including at least one TV market in every state.
PC DTV Promoters Group
Visit our Web site, www.broadcastengineering, for more discussion on the options available to broadcasters searching for a way to generate revenue by datacasting.