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Broadcasters to send data over digital TV airwaves

Broadcast TV groups form "Broadcaster's Digital Cooperative," giving third parties the ability to send Web pages and other content via airwaves.

Granite Broadcasting, Paxson Communications and 10 other broadcast television groups said they plan to form the "Broadcaster's Digital Cooperative," giving third parties the ability to send Web pages, video and other content via airwaves reserved for the transmission of digital television.

The networks are required by the Federal Communications Commission to offer digital broadcasts exclusively by 2006. Despite the better picture and sound quality of high-definition digital TV (HDTV), however, sales have been sluggish for expensive HDTV sets. As a result, few observers expect the 2006 deadline to be met because of the limited audience for digital television (DTV).

Local and network broadcasters haven't been producing much digital content, either, due to the cost of new equipment and converting film libraries to the new format.

Given these issues, broadcasters increasingly are looking at datacasting as a financial incentive to move forward with HDTV.

"Its spectrum that's extremely valuable," said Stuart Beck, president of Granite Broadcasting and head of the new cooperative.

"Whenever we turn it (the DTV signal) on, every bit that's not (used) is wasted," Beck said. "We can be slamming telephone books into your hard drive right now."

Using spectrum dedicated to DTV, the broadcasters will send out some high-definition programming, as required by the FCC, but will use leftover space to send out data at speeds typically ranging from 3 to 6 megabits per second. That's about 120 times as fast as a typical dial-up modem.

The cooperative is currently evaluating deployment strategies, it said, and will test out a variety of methods for sending content over the newly created network. After that time, the cooperative will accept and review proposals from interested third parties, it said.

That model, though largely undefined at this point, appears to be different from companies such as Geocast and iBlast, which are setting up branded content distribution services. Geocast is forming a network operations center for its broadcast partners; and users will buy a $300 device that enables them to receive content even if their PC is off.

The newly formed iBlast service also appears to be focused on delivering services to PCs. The new cooperative, on the other hand, mentioned TVs and wireless devices such as the Palm VII as potential targets for the service, along with PCs.

Executives at Geocast and iBlast were not immediately available for comment.

The end result of the new cooperative, Beck claims, will be that broadcasters will supply Americans with broadband Internet service before DSL and cable providers--albeit a service that still requires a user to send data back via a regular dial-up modem.

"The current DSL, cable and satellite providers are trying to get people to pay them every month for broadband services. This is an ubiquitous, over-the-air service that quickly leaps across the digital divide," Beck said.

The group did not provide a timeline for when any services using its network might become available.