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TV stations turn on high-speed Net downloads

Undeterred by industry uncertainty, a national group of television stations is testing services designed to beam high-speed data such as software programs, music or video directly into homes using TV signals.

Undeterred by industry uncertainty, a national group of television stations is starting to test services designed to beam high-speed data such as software programs, music or video directly into homes using TV signals.

Dubbed iBlast, the service is being tested for the first time at five stations in California, Arizona and Florida, although it won't be available commercially until late 2001. The coalition of stations ultimately hopes to persuade consumers that gaining access to movies, music, games and software through the service is easier than through the ordinary Internet, since it avoids the Web's bandwidth bottlenecks.

It's an ambitious project, part of the television industry's attempt to reinvent itself in the Internet age. That industry, seeing its revenues draining away as viewers increasingly go to satellite and cable television networks, wants a way to tap into the benefits of data distribution. The digital TV rules produced by federal regulators have provided a large chunk of the airwaves to do just that.

The service, along with similar offerings from rival Geocast Network Systems and smaller competitors, has the potential to provide a fast, new way of sending digital content to consumers that could ordinarily take hours to download even over a high-speed connection. Although the technology won't provide nearly as many options as ordinary, unfettered Web connections, the services will make up for it in speed and convenience, their creators hope.

The "datacasting" business that iBlast aspires to be in is not designed to be as interactive as the Internet. In essence, a computer or set-top box would become a television receiver, picking up data that will be sent using a TV signal. This data, such as a video, would then be stored on the computer's hard drive.

The optimism surrounding this effort may still be a little ahead of its time, however. The services depend on the move to digital television broadcasting, which for most broadcasters has been held up by fights over content rights and technology specifications.

Geocast, one of the most advanced of the digital TV-based datacasting services, has even switched its focus--at least temporarily--to include delivery of data over a satellite connection. It's keeping alive hopes for the TV technology, but is waiting for the market to settle on a single standard before pushing ahead.

"Let's say we sold 10,000 of our receivers this year, and then the standard changed," said John Abel, Geocast's vice president of business development. "It's not likely, but if it does happen, it's not going to be the broadcasters or the people who sold them the box that consumers blame. It's going to be us."

A different kind of Net
Datacasting services like iBlast and Geocast are part of a slow move toward expanding the ways consumers can tap into content now downloaded from an ordinary Web connection or not available online.

Through a regular Internet service provider, a consumer would tap into a Web site and download a movie trailer, MP3 file or other piece of data to a computer. Wireless connections such as DirecPC and EchoStar Communications' DISH Network avoid slow connections at the last part of the network, but still require the consumer to go out and actively download content.

The datacasting services would work a little more like ordinary TV. But instead of "Friends" or the 11 o'clock news being broadcast over the airwaves, it might be the latest Madonna album or updates to the latest version of a popular home-finance software package.

Consumers would sign up for specifically scheduled content or for types of content they want to see. Their receivers, whether an ordinary PC or some kind of set-top box with a big hard drive, would then capture and store the content. It wouldn't be as flexible as true video-on-demand, in which access to any movie, any time, is used as a selling point.

Rather, the idea holds the promise of using the broadcasters? digital TV spectrum to tap new sources of revenue, such as selling to content providers such as movie studios, software companies or record labels the rights to send data over their fast distribution network. Geocast has already struck deals to show clips by CNBC, MSNBC, along with distributing a few music and video files over its service.

iBlast representatives say they're talking with music labels and music studios about the possibility of distributing their content.

"The real sweet spot for us has been video-on-demand," said Matt Jacobson, iBlast's executive vice president. "The same is true with a home jukebox, which we could fill up with some kind of stored content like MP3 files."

Crossing the starting line?
All of this relies on the broadcasting industry moving forward with its digital TV plans, however. Concerns about the available technology have held up some progress.

A report issued in December skewered the two competing versions of the technology being considered by broadcasters. "Each system showed varying degrees of performance under different circumstances," the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) report read. "However, neither system in its current implementation will meet all broadcasters' or viewers' needs."

A decision made Monday could help that, however. The NAB agreed with its testing body to settle on one of two competing technical standards, agreeing to move forward despite the concerns. While not everybody in the industry is viewing that agreement as absolutely final, iBlast executives say it's time to start moving ahead.

"As far as the broadcasters are concerned, its just time to get on with it," Jacobson said.