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Intel, PBS team on 'datacast'

PBS will provide supplemental information to certain markets when it broadcasts the documentary Frank Lloyd Wright.

Intel and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) are teaming up next month on the first digital television trial that will also allow consumers to obtain Web-based content while watching TV.

The test comes as part of Intel's quest to blend the TV experience and PC technology. The chip giant has been one of the companies leading the charge for "datacasting," or the delivery of Internet material through TV signals.

Datacasting trials have taken place before, but never in concert with DTV. Intel, meanwhile, sees DTV as a potential market for its chips as a powerful computing unit will be needed to decode DTV signals.

When PBS broadcasts the Ken Burns' documentary Frank Lloyd Wright on November 10 and 11, the broadcasting service will also send approximately 200MB worth of data using a DTV signal to a select few specially equipped PCs in six U.S. markets, including Seattle and Washington D.C. While watching, viewers will be able to take virtual tours of some of Wright's historic designs in addition to viewing the documentary itself, which is being hosted by Wright's grandson.

While PBS produced the show and related content, Intel provided special add-in cards for PCs that are able to translate the digital signal and use a host 400-MHz Pentium II processor to display information on a PC. Intel also provided the software tools for coordinating the broadcast with the data signal, which is capable of transmitting about 1-mbps of information to a PC compared to roughly 56-kbps for traditional dial-up modems.

The datacast in this instance will strictly be a one-way affair. PBS will be able to send data, but viewers will not be able to respond. Other datacast trials have permitted two-way trials by creating a traditional Internet connection between the broadcaster and users.

"We're excited because as television goes digital, it opens up new revenue opportunities as well as new content opportunities," said Tom Galvin, director of market development in Intel's content group.

In fact, given numerous studies that show the paucity of digital TVs that will initially be available, combining data with TV content could be an attractive alternative for broadcasters in search of an audience--if enough PCs equipped with DTV receivers are on the market.

Intel said it hopes more PC makers will begin bundling the cards in systems because they are expected to be priced similarly to analog TV tuner cards.

"We've argued for a long time that this [datacasting] is what broadcasters should be doing," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications in Bethesda, Maryland. Broadcasters could find new revenue streams by packaging whole Web sites to be pushed to PCs a la Wavephore's Wavetop, Arlen suggested.

Broadcasters could charge companies to either have information sent to customers, or they could send information to PCs within a corporate network. The only problem is that they would then be charged for use of the airwaves that were given to them for free in order to send out DTV signals, and no fees or authorities have been set up to regulate such businesses, Arlen said.

Broadcasters are saying that 41 stations from a wide range of U.S. markets are set to begin broadcasts in November. Affiliates of the four networks in the 10 largest markets are required to begin their digital broadcasts by May 1, 1999, and in the top 30 markets by November 1999.

With digital technology, broadcasters can offer a high-definition digital TV signal with significantly greater picture clarity and sound quality than current analog TVs allow--and, as the PBS experiment is intended to show--they can combine a TV signal with a data signal more easily than they could in the past, opening up new business opportunities for broadcasters.

Intel has previously experimented with data broadcasting using its "Intercast" technology, which taps into a portion of the analog TV transmission signal. Intercast has not taken off even with the ubiquity of analog television broadcasting for a variety of reasons, including a relatively small audience and limited content production.

"What we're doing is the equivalent of digital Intercast. What changes is the amount of bandwidth available for bandwidth transmission," according to Galvin.

The documentary is being broadcast in what is called the 480 interlaced format. While it offers higher resolution than current TV broadcasts, it is referred to as standard definition digital television, or SDTV. This compares to high definition DTV (HDTV), which includes the 720 progressive scan and 1080 interlaced formats.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.