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Datacasting hits NATPE

Although much of the hype over DTV datacasting has died down since last year's NAB, one of the biggest players, iBlast, is traveling to this week's NATPE convention in Las Vegas brimming with enthusiasm.

iBlast, a consortium of 19 station groups formed last March, has completed its Network Operations Center (NOC) in Los Angeles and launched field trials at partner stations in California, Arizona and Florida. Using fiber capacity from Sprint and satellite capacity from PanAmSat, iBlast is feeding data to Tribune station KTLA Los Angeles; Cox station KICU-TV San Jose, Calif.; McGraw-Hill station KGTV San Diego; Gannett station KPNX Phoenix; and Meredith station WOFL Orlando, Fla.

"We're now datacasting," says iBlast CEO Michael Lambert. iBlast is feeding about 10 Mb/s of digital content, consisting of both test patterns and demonstration content like MP3 songs, PowerPoint files and compressed video. The content travels via fiber from iBlast's NOC to BT Broadcast Services' new teleport in Marina del Ray, Calif., where it is uplinked to Ku-band capacity on PanAmSat's Galaxy X bird.

The content is received at the partner stations, stored on local servers, and then "muxed" into the station's ATSC transport stream for local DTV broadcast at a daily average of 7 Mb/s (the rate fluctuates depending on the type of programming the station broadcasts throughout the day). Harris Corp. and Sony are providing systems integration for the field trial, while SkyStream Networks and Logic Innovations are supplying data-insertion equipment. RAID storage from IBM, Dell and HP is used to store iBlast content at the stations, and IBM is collaborating with iBlast to provide client PCs, equipped with DTV tuners, that have been placed at station employees' homes (less than 150 receivers have been deployed).

iBlast is demonstrating its service at NATPE with technology partners that include IBM, SkyStream, 3Com, Broadlogic, Motorola, Digital Stream/Samsung and ZapMedia. iBlast has made a deal with chip maker Broadlogic to create a reference design for the DTV tuner card that will be necessary to receive the iBlast service on a PC. iBlast has made undisclosed deals with other card manufacturers, says Lambert.

iBlast hasn't announced any deals with actual customers who will use its proposed datacasting service to deliver rich content to consumers. However, Lambert says, the company is in serious discussions with several companies to use the system to deliver VOD movies (at DVD quality) to both PCs and set-top boxes. iBlast is also talking to several companies about delivering digital audio files for in-home jukebox applications. The company doesn't expect to find any new content partners at NATPE but will instead use its exhibit to educate current broadcast partners and perhaps entice new stations to join the 225-station group.

iBlast has raised about $40 million and hired Morgan Stanley to run its third financing round. Lambert expects a commercial rollout by the end of 2001. "The end of the year will be the beginning of revenue for us," he says.

SpectraRep, a company formed by broadcast consulting firm BIA Financial Network to help broadcasters broker their digital spectrum, is also exhibiting at NATPE. The Chantilly, Va.-based firm has commitments from 140 stations to contribute up to 3 Mb/s of their DTV spectrum, according to SpectraRep President Rick Ducey, although most of those stations are not yet broadcasting digitally. CBS affiliate KLAS-DT Las Vegas will be broadcasting streaming video for SpectraRep to demonstrate the service, which will also be broadcast by partner stations WNJN-DT Trenton, N.J., and WETA-DT Washington. Technology firms Triveni Digital and Wavexpress are assisting the demonstration.

SpectraRep has been focusing on business-to-business applications for datacasting and working to create end-to-end solutions for enterprise customers.

"In terms of commercial rollout, we're ready to do business now," says Ducey. "But it's a long sales cycle. You have to explain to people what DTV technology is."

Another datacasting player, Geocast Network Systems, also has a presence at NATPE, albeit as a partner in the Sun Microsystems booth. Although Geocast has raised about $80 million to launch a DTV datacasting service aimed at consumer receivers with hard-disk storage, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based concern cut about 18% of its staff in November and has shifted its focus to b-to-b customers. The company also has a deal with EchoStar to distribute data via satellite, but EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen was quiet about those plans at the CES show earlier this month.

Geocast Vice President of Business Development John Abel says the company is "still leaning" toward a single-platform launch with EchoStar this year. He hopes Geocast will have its first satellite receiver in time to demonstrate at NAB in late April and expects that EchoStar will manufacture it.

Geocast is currently talking to four prospective customers, Abel says. Three are b-to-b customers who would use the EchoStar platform; the fourth, an international customer, wants to use a terrestrial DTV system.