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PTV sees revenue in 2 digital video nets

Originally published in Current, April 3, 2000
By Steve Behrens

Public TV stations will participate in, and earn revenues from, two new high-tech networks for wideband digital video distribution announced coincidentally within less than a week.

Spokesmen for both ventures said the services are not competitive with each other and may even work together when suitable for a client's needs.

Though public TV stations are interested in leasing out excess capacity on their new DTV channels, subject to FCC permission, neither of the new networks relies on the DTV signal, at least so far. The Dotcast Digital Network plans to enlist stations to use both their analog and digital signals, but its patent-pending technology creates previously unusable transmission capacity only in analog (in DTV, Dotcast's services will occupy digital capacity like any other data stream). Lucent's GeoVideo Networks won't rely on the DTV signal, either; the data goes over the fiber-optic networks of Metromedia Fiber Network, Inc., primarily, and less often over other fiber routes.

Dotcast: "found" capacity in the TV signal

If Dotcast's technology works as claimed, it creates new transmission capacity in the analog TV signal. W. Leo Hoarty, Dotcast's president and chief technology officer, and PBS engineers will brief station reps next week during the National Association of Broadcasters circus in Las Vegas.

"We think it's a very promising technology," said Jay Trager, chief operating officer of PBS National Datacast, a for-profit subsidiary of the public TV network. The 4.5 mbps stream would dwarf the 20 kilobit-per-second stream on a line of stations' vertical blanking intervals (VBIs), which is Datacast's main offering.

"We'll go through a process with the stations, reaching a consensus that the service is compatible with stations' facilities and will not harm their signals," assured Trager.

The technology makes available a stream that could easily handle a digital video picture or other heavy bitstreams. Its capacity is substantial even compared with a DTV signal, which carries 19.4 mbps of data.

In the analog signal, Dotcast inserted a 4.5 mbps stream "in quadrature to existing visual and aural subcarriers," said Dotcast Chairman and Chief Executive Officer David Atkinson. "In essence, it's in there at a 90-degree angle to the existing visual carrier." The added digital stream can't be detected by TV sets and therefore doesn't interfere with the main analog signal, its subcarriers or its VBI.

The quadrature idea isn't new, according to PBS Chief Technology Officer John Tollefson. Two companies advanced similar schemes in the 1990s, but they didn't add much new capacity and both fell by the wayside. Dotcast said its technology gets around interference problems by preprocessing the added digital signal so it won't interfere with the TV signal, he explained.

Atkinson said Dotcast had bought exclusive worldwide rights to the technology, developed by an unnamed affiliated company. The technology will work in cable TV and in FM radio as well as in broadcast TV, he said.

Dotcast, based in Palo Alto, Calif., will seek deals for capacity on at least two signals per market and as many as four or five, according to Atkinson. The company is talking with commercial TV station owners as well.

What will Dotcast carry?

"It makes available a wireless wideband pipe to the home that doesn't have to wait for the DTV signal," said Trager. "Use your imagination."

Atkinson said the stream could carry any digital product, such as movies, music, video games and software upgrades. With its addressable receivers, Dotcast also will be economically viable as carrier of the downstream side of an individual's Internet connection, he contends.

Like many high-tech ventures, roll-out will be gradual. Among other daunting tasks, Dotcast will have to find ways to get inexpensive receiving devices built into or attached to computers in many homes.

GeoVideo: someday their prince would come

CSRG, the association of freestanding public TV stations in bigger cities, had been looking for a partnership like GeoVideo to supplement stations' revenues, said CSRG President Bill Kobin. Participating stations are located in all but seven of the 30 largest markets.

The stations won't provide transmission capacity themselves, but will serve as marketing and technical operations hubs for GeoVideo, said Bryce Combs, the former CSRG member and g.m. of Milwaukee's WMVS/WMVT who is now chief operating officer of GeoVideo. Stations will also be users of the network, Combs added. "We may replace the satellite system--who knows?"

Combs said the public TV stations bring a number of special qualities to the venture. They understand video, they know education, they're a neutral presence among the competing media corporations, and they have good reputations and contacts in the business world. "Many on the boards of stations represent companies that are going to make the first move into the media space that we are rolling out," said Combs.

Stations' involvement will vary from city to city, said Kobin, but will require very little outlay, he said.

Though GeoVideo Networks will operate outside the Internet, they will use web protocols. Users will look at 30-frames-per-second images on Lucent "video browser" software. Spokesmen said initial services, linking New York and Los Angeles, will mostly connect businesses at first, for teleconferencing as well as video industry hookups, but the company someday will reach homes with the extension of fiber optic lines.

Cliff Schorer, co-c.e.o. of GeoVideo, said the network could download entire feature-length movies to in-store kiosks within 90 seconds, as well as deliver college course content to corporate desktops or create "virtual classrooms" for homebound students.

Present in the audience and introduced prominently during the press conference was Jack Fields, the former Texas congressman who fathered the 1996 Telecom Act.

"Jack Fields is going to be a very important part of our future," said Combs. He declined to elaborate.

GeoVideo is the latest in a string of start-ups to come out of Lucent's New Ventures Group, said the company. Another is Lucent Digital Radio, a major contender for design of the radio industry's conversion to digital. The venture is owned by Lucent, Thomas Weisel Partners, the Ocepek Group, Crest Communications Holdings and East River Ventures.

. To Current's home page
. Later news: After two decades of satellite interconnection, public TV begins to see advantages in coming down to earth.
. Outside links: Dotcast and GeoVideo sites.

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