|WFYI showed off datacasting by trying a virtual field trip to the new dinosaur exhibit at the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Pictured: teacher Rick Rosslin with a cast of a triceratops horn. (Photo: WFYI.)|
Datacasting: a service with rewards
Old hat is television — a well-known combo of pictures and sounds beamed to that big box at home.
New hat, for some public broadcasters is datacasting — sending all things digital into the laptops of 240 teachers or the wireless handhelds of five fire chiefs, especially the ones who pay for it.
Though the FCC classifies datacasting as an “ancillary” revenue-generating use of excess transmission capacity, Nashville PTV President Steve Bass sees it becoming a true public service that’s consistent with the station’s mission. And it would bring in revenue, too. Bass thinks the station's NPTcast service could generate annual fees in the six figures.
“I see this as being the only application in digital broadcasting that has a hope of changing the economic foundation on which we rest,” he says. “We could straighten out our relationship with government funders. We could get appropriations not because we do good but because we’re critical.”
For most of a year Bass has been talking up datacasts with Nashville municipal officials, but he didn’t sense he had connected until September, when fire destroyed a downtown nursing home, killing 14. Afterwards, Bass heard a fire official remark that victims could have been saved if blueprints of the building had been sent to the firefighters on the scene.
“I called up the deputy mayor and said, ‘We can do that now,’ and the ball started rolling,” says Bass.
Balls are rolling nationwide as stations demonstrate datacasting for county agencies, schools and nonprofits, hoping to gain good will, provide public service and make a buck in the bargain.
In Denver and Indianapolis, stations showed off the technology with virtual field trips to museums. In New York City, WNET tested a system that could keep fire commanders in touch with a disaster scene. And the military’s annual war game for techies, the Joint Warrior Interoperability Demonstration, plans to test homeland security uses of pubTV datacasting at two sites next week, according to SpectraRep, a Virginia company that’s working with stations hooked on the promise of datacasting.
In a high-tech quirk, public TV’s biggest datacasting gig at the moment is on its old analog channels. Stations in Jacksonville, Fla.; Salt Lake City, Utah, and Spokane, Wash., are now transmitting movies to home subscribers for the Walt Disney Co.’s MovieBeam service, says Jackie Weiss, c.e.o. of PBS National Datacast, which has been leasing smaller datastreams on the stations’ analog signals since 1988. Disney plans to expand MovieBeam to three more markets this year and add nearly 40 next year, she says. PubTV stations will do the job in nearly every city.
MovieBeam’s digital stream hitchhikes on the analog signal using special Dotcast technology and trickles into receiver/storage units where 100 recent movies are available on demand.
But despite this 11th-hour flirtation with analog, datacasting is made for DTV.
“It’s like a web page,” says Bass. “Click here and
get the service.” What comes out may be a training video clip, a map
or a continuous video stream already in progress.
Datacasts are multiplexed — the engineers say “muxed” — into the same broadcast bitstream that contains one or more TV programs.
Last fall’s trial datacast by Denver’s Rocky Mountain PBS used less than 3 percent of the station’s DTV capacity — 500 kilobits per second of the total 19.4 megabits per second — and yielded “good resolution and very intelligible audio,” the station reported.
A station can pack its channel with a high-definition program and two standard-definition programs and still have room for a lot of datacasting, says Bo Bernard, president of the Digital Network, a datacast services vendor.
Bernard recommends inserting datacasts opportunistically — cramming packets of data in the parts of the video signal that go unused when Barney briefly stops galumphing. This perishable capacity amounts to as much as 30 percent of a video stream, according to Bernard. Not putting data in those bits, he says, is like sending off an airliner with empty seats.
Several companies offer to help stations fill those seats. One is the Digital Network, run by Bernard — a for-profit spinoff of KERA in Dallas that is signing school districts as datacast customers for KERA. It plans to add at least 10 stations this year and 24 next year, he says. Pacific Mountain Network joined KERA to provide capital for the company’s launch in April.
Already working the market was SpectraRep, based in Chantilly, Va., which is assisting stations in a handful of cities including Nashville. The company has been preaching the datacast gospel about as long as John Lawson, president of APTS. Richard V. Ducey, SpectraRep’s president, says Lawson spoke at SpectraRep’s first major pitch to stations four years ago, before he headed the pubTV lobby.
Both SpectraRep and the Digital Network offer turnkey hardware and software packages as well as assistance in marketing to potential clients. Both companies also see potential national and regional clients for datacasts over multiple stations. Equipment makers such as Harris Corp. also offer datacast technology packages.
The basic technology of datacasting is mature, says John DeLay, director of digital television products for Harris, but new applications continue to arise. It’s a classic case of technology arriving before users settle on a business model, he says.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of pockets of opportunity that could be leveraged,” says DeLay. “Unfortunately, it requires a lot of work with clients to get them to understand the power of the technology.”
When it’s absolutely positively urgent
Some of the biggest pockets and most urgent communication needs today belong to homeland security officials and their cousins in public safety.
The needs include preparedness training programs for emergency workers, alerts for first-responders when other media are jammed, and detailed information they can use on the scene of an emergency, says Edward Czarnecki, a homeland security specialist at SpectraRep. That information might be passenger manifests after an airliner crash, maps of poisonous chemical spills, or photos of missing children or wanted criminals.
But many emergency communication needs are two-way — and New York’s WNET is trying a datacasting variant that answers those needs. Last month the city Fire Department joined in testing WNET’s Smart Nets system — the downstream circuit beamed voice and visuals from the Empire State Building and the upstream from mobile units. In practice, the downstream circuit could travel via DTV and the upstream via ITFS microwave channels licensed for education.
Smart Nets takes advantage of the flexibility, including two-way transmission, that the FCC allows with ITFS (Instructional Television Fixed Service) channels. If police phone systems fail during an emergency, commanders and first-responders could remain in contact through Smart Nets, says Stephen Carrol-Cahnmann, WNET’s director of digital convergence.
The channels, with the full 6 MHz bandwidth of an ordinary TV channel, also give public safety agencies much improved ability to transmit visuals. Remote video feeds can be the eyes of fire commanders, who are now — since 9/11 — required to direct operations from headquarters, according to Carrol-Cahnmann.
The federal government’s National Technology Alliance recently okayed funding for the Smart Nets project for a second year as WNET discussed future experiments with the NYPD, he said.
An audience of schools and nonprofits
Datacasting also may fit precisely into schools’ needs for instructional video services. Overnight, a DTV signal can download huge volumes of updated video into schools’ servers, freeing the schools from leasing thick digital landlines.
In the Dallas suburbs, the Digital Network has signed a 50,000-student school system, Garland Independent School District, as a big customer for KERA. Besides datacast delivery to as many as 60 buildings in the future, the package sold includes more than 1,000 instructional video clips selected by KERA that are keyed to state curriculum standards, Bernard says.
The Digital Network is also transmitting nurse-training courses in a pilot study with the University of Texas Medical Branch Telehealth Center in Galveston, says Eleanor W. Latimer, v.p. of marketing and business development.
In Colorado, Rocky Mountain PBS demonstrated datacasting with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and SpectraRep. Last November, students at four middle schools interacted with paleontologist Kirk Johnson at a U.S. Geological Survey lab in Lakewood. Students asked questions by a cellphone audio conference.
For the museum, the datacast was part of a foundation-funded project that tested how well students learned from various classroom activities that taught the scientific method and Denver-area geology. Though the students also built model volcanos and examined fossils from the museum, 70 percent said the live datacast was both the most enjoyable and the most educational activity. Some liked the interaction with a “real scientist” working in their region, even though he was miles away.
Adults also liked the show, says Jim Schoedler, chief technology officer at Rocky Mountain PBS. The museum is seeking funds to equip 25 schools, and the station named a new division, Rocky Mountain Datacast. Schoedler expects datacasting can transmit videoconferences for regional clients who don’t need the national reach of a satellite hookup.
As in Denver, the datacasting tryout in Indianapolis amounted to a virtual field trip. Rick Crosslin, a teacher at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, gave a video preview of the museum’s new Dinosphere exhibit March 25. Along with the live video, users could choose pretaped videos and a curriculum guide tuned to Indiana’s state teaching standards.
Public TV station WFYI pulled the project together in a matter of weeks with help from Harris Corp., Triveni Digital and the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunications System.
The viewers in this case weren’t students but educators and technologists at the annual Video Development Initiative workshop. Though WFYI did the demo at the request of conference planners, the result was so impressive that the station elevated datacasting in its plans, says President Lloyd Wright.
“It’s like light bulbs coming on,” he recalls. The children’s museum and other local groups liked the capabilities they saw. So did the station, which is now planning its capital campaign. “We’re confident,” says Wright, “that datacasting will be part of our case for support.”
Two, two, two goods in one
While stations want to earn good will for their good works in datacasting, they also hope to earn some greenbacks to pay the power bill. They’ll face a tough puzzle — setting prices high enough to earn net income and low enough that city agencies won’t mind paying it.
That can be especially difficult when you’re bearing startup costs,
so SpectraRep plans to seek federal aid to hold down the rates charged to
public safety agencies, says Czarnecki.
In some datacast uses, the station can’t just aim to beat competitors’ prices because there may be no competitors. “If you’re delivering high-quality, 1 MB of video to a PC, how else can you do it?” asks Ducey. It would overwhelm most organization’s Internet connections.
Bass favors a variation on the way cable operators charge their subscribers: a basic fee for equipment installation and some transmission capacity with additional fees for options.
The great strength that will sell datacasting, he says, is its ability to provide high-bandwidth material simultaneously to multiple and possibly mobile users. Public-safety clients may not need those capabilities every day, but Bass suggests they should be given capacity to do datacasts so often that they’ll keep the equipment in repair and remember how to turn it on.
Web page posted June 10, 2004, revised Aug. 11, 2004
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