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iBlast adds 85 more stations

IBlast Networks signed datacasting agreements with 85 additional stations last week, including Cosmos Broadcasting and Gray Communications, two groups that had been considering joining the Broadcasters Digital Cooperative (BDC).

The other new members include Bahakal Communications, Bonneville International, Emmis Communications, Evening Post Publishing Co. and Raycom Media.

Stuart Beck, Granite Broadcasting president and head of the BDC, says, "There's really no competition [with iBlast]. There could be, but I don't want it. The issue isn't membership but whether the technology partners are ready to play."

A commitment to iBlast, Beck said, doesn't make a deal with the BDC out of the question. "But,''he says, "I do think that, when you start putting in the network's interest, there may not be room for two."

Jim Keelor, president of Cosmos Broadcasting, says the iBlast concept was the best of its options and uses the digital spectrum the way Congress had in mind. "The datacasting service is free to the consumer, controlled by the local broadcaster, and provides a national digital broadband pipe that can compete with cable and telephony," he explains.

IBlast Networks, like BDC, will use a small portion of the member station's digital television spectrum to broadcast data directly to digital tuner cards in PCs or other devices. But by tying up more stations, iBlast hopes to lock up the market, in a sense, before the market even exists.

According to IBlast President Ken Solomon, with the new additions, iBlast now boasts 225 member stations from 19 station groups in 143 markets committing a daily average of 7 Mb/s of digital spectrum. Solomon called it an "unbelievable footprint" that establishes iBlast as the "Coca-Cola of the business." He said he expects content deals ranging from music companies to game manufacturers by year's end. "We have no advantage to tipping our hand right now," he says.

The service will roll out to approximately 20 stations by the end of the year, followed by a top-30-market launch in the second quarter of 2001. Testing of the iBlast system is currently taking place at KICU-TV San Jose, KTLA-TV Los Angeles, and KGTV(TV) San Diego, as well as in the iBlast laboratory.

The group includes 40 ABC affiliates, 56 NBC affiliates, 59 CBS affiliates, 33 FOX affiliates, 19 WB affiliates and 13 UPN affiliates.

Solomon says the member stations will not offer national data distribution from any other source. "For example, if ABC were to come in and say they've gotten their act together and have thought about a data-distribution network, they'd have to come to us to get it distributed over our stations," he says. "But if they intend on sending out enhanced services directly related to a show, they probably don't have to talk to us."