North Carolina Broadcaster Experiments with Digital Services

So-called "push technology" was one of the hot buzz phrases two years ago. The concept was that centralized server computers would send customized packages of information and entertainment to end users, rather than having them search for what they wanted.

Raleigh, North Carolina–based Capitol Broadcasting is now experimenting with pushing TV programming and Web pages to about 200 people in the state's "Research Triangle," the area defined by Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. DTV Plus, as Capitol calls it, uses some of the spectrum allocated for full-bandwidth high-definition television to beam signals from WRAL-TV in Clayton, NC, to computers throughout the area. Up-to-date computers are each outfitted with an ordinary "rabbit ear" antenna, an HDTV tuner card, a high-speed videocard, and the necessary software to manage it all to get the signals—both digital TV programming and Web pages, which are transmitted 300 times faster than is possible with a 56K modem.

Folks on the receiving end of Capitol's experiment get HDTV on their computer screens and updated Web pages stored on their hard drives for viewing at their leisure. New data are written over the old so that users' hard drives don't fill up. It's a one-way connection, however; users cannot interact with websites or send e-mail without logging on to the Internet via their modems. "The data comes in and sits on your hard drive and you can look at it," explains Capitol's Jim Goodmon. "We can send you anything you want. But you are not connected to the Internet."

Goodman told the Raleigh News & Observer that he "plans to expand the pilot program by an additional 100 families, and put the technology through at least two more test phases." WRAL was one of the first stations in the country to broadcast HDTV and to produce its own programming in the new format.

"Datacasting" has been discussed by many broadcasters as a possible business model for making their investments in high-definition technology pay off. Broadcasting a less-than-maximum-bandwidth DTV signal (say, 480p rather than 1080i) leaves room for other services in the 6MHz channel given to each TV station by the Federal Communications Commission. Such plans have angered some officials in Washington, notably FCC chairman William Kennard and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the House of Representatives' Telecommunications Subcommittee. The free bandwidth was intended for HDTV and nothing else, they say.