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A killer app for digital TV?

In the never-ending search to find practical applications of digital TV stations, noncommercial broadcasters think they have found one: public safety.

Next week in Washington, the Office of Homeland Security and the Department of Commerce will convene the first homeland security and public-safety conference and exhibition. Among exhibitors will be the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS). On behalf of its member stations, it will offer digital spectrum to security and public-safety officials in need of wireless broadband links that can cover city-size areas.

"We clearly have something to offer that is unique," says APTS President John Lawson. "A lot of people are coming to the government asking for spectrum to improve emergency communications. We already have the spectrum." DTV is not a "total solution" for emergency workers, Lawson says. "But, in a metropolitan area, it can reach a million PCs as easily as it can one."

Working with APTS is SpectraRep, an arm of Chantilly, Va.-based broadcast appraisal and investment firm BIA Financial Network. At the homeland security exhibition, with the help of noncommercial WETA-TV Washington, SpectraRep will demonstrate just what DTV can do.

At the heart of the demo will be a rugged portable computer from Xybernaut Corp., Fairfax, Va. According to SpectraRep President Rick Ducey, it's a "rugged, field-quality" computer, which features a detachable touch screen that communicates with the base unit via a local Wi-Fi (802.11b) link. Users can walk off with the touch screen slung around their necks.

The base unit receives DTV signals via a TV antenna and an outboard DTV datacast tuner, manufactured by B2C2.

With WETA-TV pumping out the data, says Ducey, attendees at the show will be able to walk around the convention hall (the D.C. Armory) and call up text, graphics, and audio and video streams.

Like Lawson, Ducey says DTV has what public-safety people need: It's broadband, wireless and long-reaching. In major disasters, police, fire and medical workers may respond from a large area and be widely dispersed. "Having metro-wide data that everybody can share is a valuable resource."

DTV has inherent advantages over other media, Ducey says. Wireless telephony does not have enough bandwidth, and satellite is a lot of trouble: "They don't want to be hauling satellite equipment around."

On touch-screen, emergency workers at the scene of a chemical spill or bioterrorism attack could receive detailed weather information and graphics showing the movement of the toxic cloud. "You could see exactly how it is tracking," Ducey points out.

APTS's interest in DTV for public safety and security filtered up from the stations. Kentucky Educational Television, which operates 15 transmitters in the state, is among pioneers, Lawson says, working with state police and the National Weather Service to create a severe-weather warning system.

Likewise, KMOS-TV Kansas City, Mo., and the Missouri National Guard are putting together an earthquake alert system. The noncommercial stations are not looking for money for the public-safety use of their spectrum. "We see it as an extension of our current obligation under the emergency-alert system," Lawson says. "We don't see this as part of some business plan."

But he also acknowledges that, by helping public safety and homeland security, noncommercial stations will build goodwill in Congress, from which they receive funding.

Goodwill may be fine for public TV, Ducey says. But commercial TV stations are looking for money to recoup their investment in DTV. "This is the first viable business model for DTV datacasting," he says. "There is urgency, there is demand, and there is budget. These agencies have money to spend to solve the problem."