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Fighting viruses with DTV

After corporate IT departments across America were sent scrambling by the "love bug" virus earlier this month, a group of broadcasters has proposed a way to fight viruses through the digital television spectrum.

The Broadcasters Digital Cooperative, one of several groups of stations looking to create a new business by transmitting data through their DTV channels, plans to work with federal and state agencies to create a system whereby virus alerts would be broadcast to PCs.

Software patches could also be distributed through the DTV spectrum to consumers who subscribe to services from software utility suppliers like Norton or McAfee.

"The DTV system can deliver the fix," says Granite Broadcasting President Stuart Beck, head of the Cooperative's executive committee. "That's what we're working on now."

The idea was presented to FCC Chairman William Kennard in Washington last week by Beck and other members of the Cooperative, which was formed March by 12 station ownership groups. The group was meeting with Kennard to discuss the potential of DTV datacasting.

"I thought it was very creative," says an FCC official who attended the meeting. "It's an innovative example of an application [for DTV data]."

Clear Channel Director of Engineering Mike DeClue, who is leading the technical charge on the virus-alert system, says the motivation behind it is simple: "The I love you' virus caused about $10 billion in damage, according to Time magazine; Hurricane Hugo caused only $7 billion. We considered this part of our supporting public service. There's [already] a well-established EAS service that does watches and warnings."

DeClue says the EAS system could be used for virus alerts. But he also thinks the DTV spectrum is a perfect way to distribute software patches while bypassing the congestion of the Internet, where the "everybody all at once" distribution model doesn't work very well.

"This is exactly the kind of thing you're required to get out in a hurry," he explains. "You could have a megabyte or two of code distributed in five or six seconds and be immediately updating those files."

Clear Channel will test such a system at WKRC-DT Cincinnati, working with datacasting technology firm Wave-Xpress.

The Cooperative was one of several datacasting proponents to meet with the FCC over the past two weeks. Another large consortium of station groups, iBlast, visited the commission the week of May 8.

Datacasting firm Geocast, which has signed spectrum deals with Hearst-Argyle, Belo and Allbritton, met with the FCC and Congressional staffers last week. The Geocast executives demonstrated how HDTV and multimedia content could be broadcast simultaneously in a 19.4-Mb/s DTV channel.

Geocast showed 1080i HDTV, the most bandwidth-intensive DTV format, running at 13.3 Mb/s along with 6 Mb/s of data, which was captured on Geocast's data receiver.

"We wanted to show that broadcasters could do 1080i and do DTV data," says Geocast Vice President of Business Development John Abel.

Although the three groups have different approaches to using the DTV spectrum, says the FCC official, they all are already talking about applications for their proposed data services. That is a dramatic change from a year ago, the official notes, when many broadcasters were complaining that DTV lacked a business model.

"The difference between a year ago and today is like night and day. It's very exciting. They're really thinking about this in creative ways, and they all have reasonable shots at making a business of it."