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Disney fueling the rise of datacasting

Sat, 01/31/2004 - 7:00pm
David Iler, Contributing Editor

Nobody would accuse Mickey Mouse of being a propeller-head, but the familiar icon's creator, The Walt Disney Co., has revived a once-promising technology, datacasting, from the ashes of the dot-com crash.

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Disney chose datacasting as the underlying technology behind its MovieBeam-branded on-demand, digital movie-rental service. MovieBeam debuted in late September in Spokane, Wash.; Jacksonville, Fla. and Salt Lake City, Utah.

With a pass of its magic wand, Disney has granted datacasting its most compelling application to date after years of ambitious, but largely unrealized, plans. The MovieBeam service will transmit digital movie files over-the-air, embedded in analog television signals, to hard-drive-equipped receivers made by Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. The service will utilize the broadcast spectrum of TV stations owned by Disney's ABC network and National Datacast Inc.'s network of PBS stations.

Customers will have a choice of 100 movies, stored on their receivers and available "on demand" for per-viewing fees of between $2.99 and $6.99, with a $6.99 per month equipment service fee. Every week, MovieBeam datacasts about 10 new movies to the receivers, replacing 10 titles on the hard drive. Disney aggregated hardware and software technology from several companies to bring MovieBeam to market.

Digital bonanza?

The early fortunes of datacasting rose, and eventually fell, as a by-product of the Federal Communications Commission's digital TV mandate. With terrestrial TV stations required to move from analog to digital signal transmission, stations in the late 1990s looked for ways to derive revenue from the huge investment required to upgrade gear to digital. Datacasting seemed to be the answer.

In its 1999 Annual Report, Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. touted its partnership with Geocast Network Systems Inc. as a way to use its digital spectrum to provide personalized news, information, entertainment, 30-frame-per-second video and e-commerce services to personal computers. The "dream destination" for such content forecast by Hearst-Argyle today lives on only in the largely forgotten, archived Annual Report.

Lack of compelling content, slow consumer adoption of digital terrestrial televisions, undercapitalization of datacasting companies and poor indoor reception of digital signals have all been cited by industry observers as reasons for datacasting's initial failure to create any magic in the marketplace.

Bethany Mayer
Mayer
"People didn't quite get the business case right or the technology right," says Bethany Mayer, vice president of product marketing for SkyStream Networks Inc., which supplied content delivery software to datacasting companies.

"It's difficult to find a product that's really compelling to the consumer that is not available with another technology," such as multichannel video services and broadband Internet access, adds Adi Kishore, media and entertainment analyst for the Yankee Group.

Disney, however, may have found the right combination of technology and marketing.

"MovieBeam is an interesting concept," says Kishore. However, he believes "MovieBeam doesn't do very well when positioned against cable VOD."

MovieBeam may find its niche, he points out, with households with analog TVs and VCRs, but not a multichannel video service–somewhere between seven and nine percent of U.S. households–which is no small metric.

Plus, few companies market as well as Disney, and datacasting lets the entertainment giant directly establish relationships with movie-loving consumers, at a relatively low cost. Analog datacasting, says Kishore, is "a very cheap way to reach the consumer."

Because MovieBeam uses existing infrastructure–the broadcast airwaves–the costs of launching the service are relatively inexpensive, about $200,000 to $250,000 per city, says Disney spokeswoman Michelle Bergman.

Datacasting dinosaurs

Although datacasting's life in the dot-com era was conceived by digital TV, it is not a new concept. It predates the digital era.

MovieBeam reciever box & interface
The MovieBeam receiver box
and interface displayed on a TV.
For example, Teletext, an information data broadcast service, was developed in the 1970s in the United Kingdom and remains in use, and closed captioning, which is broadcast in line 21, field 1 of the vertical blanking interval (VBI) of a National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) analog signal, is ubiquitous.

And datacasting is no stranger to cable. In the mid-1990s, a trio of seasoned cable TV engineers–Ted Hartson, Robert Dickinson, and Walt Ciciora–began experimenting with attaching data to the video and aural components of an analog NTSC signal.

The challenge was to insert the data "in a manner that did not damage the picture," says Ciciora, who also writes a column for CED. The engineers were able to accomplish the feat, squeezing up to 3 Megabits per second (Mbps) on the visual AM carrier in quadrature phase, and up to 1.5 Mbps in the aural FM carrier. The technique was dubbed dNTSC.

Working in Scottsdale, Ariz., the trio formed EnCamera Sciences Corp. and obtained a license from the Federal Communications Commission to set up a low-power transmitter and to put a signal in the air.

Dotcast Inc. became interested in the technology and the two companies negotiated a field-of-use license. In October 2000, Dotcast bought EnCamera and the dNTSC technology, which is a core technology of the MovieBeam service.

Leo Hoarty
Hoarty
Dotcast, says company Chief Technology Officer Leo Hoarty, originally planned to use datacasting to add high-speed carriers onto cable hybrid fiber/ coax (HFC) analog signals, notably terrestrial HDTV signals or signals to augment cable modem service. Later, Dotcast began working on over-the-air analog datacasting, refining and improving upon dNTSC by taking advantage of advancements in software-defined radio technology and digital signal processing.

Two key Dotcast technologies enable the MovieBeam box. The first is a complex ASIC (application specific integrated circuit) with over three million gates and 13 million transistors. As a datacast signal is received by a traditional "tin-can" TV tuner in the receiver, it moves to an analog-to-digital converter, producing a digital stream that is fed into the ASIC.

"What emerges is a high-speed stream of data," says Hoarty. In MovieBeam's case, the data is a movie file, which is sent to the set-top's hard drive.

The ASIC is designed to look for the data within the multipath signal (within the presence of noise), detect it, apply forward error correction and output the extracted signal for processing elsewhere in the receiver box.

The second key piece of technology developed by Dotcast was an E-field antenna for the receiver, based in part on antennas designed for fighter jet nose cones.

The thin, 12-inch-wide by 1-inch-high antenna contains a very sensitive amplifier, says Hoarty. The sensitivity of the antenna and the ASIC's ability to "hear" or detect data in the broadcast signal means the receiver box can be placed anywhere in the home.

Dotcast also developed the signal broadcast technology, which takes the form of a rack-mounted piece of equipment at the broadcast transmitter site. The data (or movie file) is inserted into the visual portion of an analog signal and passively coupled at the exciter of a TV transmitter, at a symbol rate of 613 kHz. The slower symbol rate ensures a "better chance of good indoor reception for data," says Hoarty.

Managing the MovieBeam stream

Underscoring the multiple technologies that Disney aggregated to create its MovieBeam service, SkyStream's zBand platform also plays a key role.

zBand employs a client/server architecture to aggregate content for scheduled delivery, using quality of service and security techniques. On the set-top or client side, directory management and playback features allow a service provider to control hard drive contents and to ensure content has been received, received in its entirety, and is of consistent quality. The platform can allow content to be played at pre-designated times and to be added or deleted. zBand uses digital rights management technology from InterTrust Technologies Corp. and supports real-time playback.

Datacasting for the enterprise and for homeland security

Although zBand was originally developed for broadcasters and consumer applications, Mayer notes that SkyStream developed enterprise-based features for its platform. One of SkyStream's business customers is grocer Safeway Inc., which uses the zBand platform, together with SkyStream's edge router, to send video training files via satellite to its stores for playback on televisions and PCs.

NDS Ltd., which supplied fallen datacast star iBlast Inc. with a content delivery platform, has adapted to today's security-conscious environment by creating an emergency information notification service delivery platform.

Tom Rucktenwald
Rucktenwald
Dubbed AlertStorm, the platform uses digital terrestrial television signals to transmit inserted, aggregated local emergency information culled from the Emergency Alert System, Amber Alert and the National Weather Service (and other sources), in addition to media files such as maps and audio. AlertStorm customers include the public terrestrial Kentucky Educational TV (KET) station network, which originates in Lexington, Ky. and has 15 digital stations statewide. AlertStorm is used to send information to emergency managers around the state, saving each the expense of individually connecting to emergency and weather information services.

With the United States acutely tuned to homeland security issues, "AlertStorm is uniquely positioned to provide information back to a national system," says Tom Rucktenwald, director of data applications security for NDS.

HFC and datacasting

The technology and engineering required to embed and extract a data signal within a terrestrial analog signal is much more complex than embedding data in a signal that's sent through an HFC network. In fact, it is this application–boosting the capacity of analog channels to create a "virtual overbuild"–that was the prime focus of EnCamera Sciences.

"Over cable, it's a walk in the park to do this," says Hoarty. This is because, among other things, less forward error correction is needed for HFC delivery of a datacast signal resulting in less overhead and a more useful payload.

Adding a datacast signal to analog channels in an HFC network can add 5.8 Mbps of data on every analog carrier, says Hoarty. In a system with 40 analog and 40 digital channels, and with a data signal on each analog carrier, an operator can gain close to 240 Mbps of new bandwidth downstream, he notes.

With much of datacasting's roots in cable, "the story for cable still holds," says Hoarty. The proliferation of HD and VOD may make that story a blockbuster for datacasting.

E-mail: editor@denver.net

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