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Data broadcast: The new frontier

What would you think if I told you that the Internet would soon have a competitor for broad-based data distribution? Could something as mind-numbingly huge as the Internet see competition in such a short time frame after its own burst to stardom?

"Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antenna bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free"
--Rush, "Spirit of the Radio"

What would you think if I told you that the Internet would soon have a competitor for broad-based data distribution? Could something as mind-numbingly huge as the Internet see competition in such a short time frame after its own burst to stardom?

Over the next 12 months, a new form of service will arise that will simultaneously upset the current market for Internet content, topple the current standards in the consumer electronics industry, save the storage industry from its worst slump in years, and qualify the FCC's HDTV bandwidth grant as the greatest charity event in the history of the world. The technology that could cause such profound change goes by the name of "data broadcasting," and although it's been around for years, its time to shine has finally come.

To understand the potential for data broadcasting, you must first accept the following two arguments: that bandwidth is still scarce and that local storage capacity is abundant. The place where bandwidth scarcity is most serious is still the home, and as a result, it is in the home where data broadcasting will have the greatest impact.

Appealing solutions for the "last-mile" problem seem as distant as they did a year ago. Infrastructure requirements, capital constraints, and bureaucratic hurdles have all combined to slow the march of progress. A current solution is to multiplex two 56-kbps lines for a cool 112 kbps of bandwidth. This solution, which will require the user to purchase two phone lines, can only be described appropriately as a kluge. (Nonengineers may need to look this up.) Perhaps an even larger issue is the growing concern by some that the largest long distance companies are dangerously close to maxing out their backbone bandwidth. In other words, fiber needs may be outpacing our ability to lay down new trunks.

The abundance of local storage capacity is easier to grasp. One need only look at the falling stock prices of Seagate, Quantum, or Western Digital. Hard drive manufacturers, in a race against commoditization, have trained themselves to always look to the high end of the market. Unfortunately, they forgot to poll the market with respect to the need. Does a starter PC need a 2GB drive? Does a high-end PC need an 8GB drive? The rise of the Internet has had two negative impacts on the demand for disk drive capacity. First, users have less need to "horde" software, as most freeware is readily available on the Web. Second, we spend more time surfing, which results in less time acquiring and using software. The bottom line is that our drives are getting bigger, yet our demand curve is flat to falling. Yet it's practically guaranteed that next year there will be bigger and faster drives at lower and lower prices.

So what is data broadcast? The phone network was designed to facilitate one-to-one interactive, real-time communication. The video broadcast networks that we use to watch TV (UHF, VHF, cable, and satellite) were designed to facilitate one-to-many transmissions (noninteractive). The Internet was designed to facilitate one-to-one interactive asynchronous (no time guarantee) communication. In the beginning, Internet usage was primarily focused on this one-to-one type of communication with applications such as email or a single user interacting with a Web page. Over time, we began to appreciate data that might appeal to multiple users simultaneously. Applications like audio and video streaming are sometimes limited by Internet traffic. Additionally, we have come to realize that multiple Internet users want to see the same event-based data at the same time, such as election results, stock market crashes, or major news events.

IP multicast is proposed as a way to alleviate the inefficiency of current streaming technologies. However, there is a much cheaper way to deliver bits that everyone wants to see: by transferring them over a network designed for broadcast, such as television, cable, or satellite.

Here are the details of how this will work. We will first need technology (possibly an ISA card) in the home that will allow us to connect either the PC or a set-top box of some kind to a broadcast network. In the case of cable or satellite, this will be through a coax cable. (Intel has a product in this space but it has had only marginal success.) The first wave will likely use excess capacity in VHF channels, allowing us the ironic combination of attaching "rabbit ears" to our PC. Once we are hooked up, "data broadcasters" will push data past our homes on a continuous basis. Our devices will be programmed to "capture" the information that we might find most compelling. Hopefully, now we can see why we referred to bandwidth scarcity and storage abundance as prerequisites for success. This whole model assumes that storage is so cheap that it makes sense to blast bits past everyone's home on the chance that they might want to see it.

It is important to realize that this solution will never replace the Internet because it is not interactive. Therefore, things like "interactive trading" and electronic commerce cannot possibly take place over this broadcast network. However, commodity content like stock prices, news reports, sports scores, and weather clearly belong on a broadcast network. This information is plentiful and is available for free, and there is no reason not to put this information in the air where everyone can get to it quickly. No more waiting for the phone line to connect; no more waiting for clumsy graphics to cram through a 28.8-kbps modem. Just point, click, and enjoy. What most people fail to realize here is just how cheap it is to broadcast data that everyone wants to see. If you think about it, there are something like 175 DirecTV channels soaring past your head every minute. Just one of those channels could represent 32 megabits of data each second. That represents a throughput rate of 240 megabytes per minute. That's a ton of data, and that's just one channel.