Opportunistic data

In recent years, a variety of opportunities to develop new revenue streams from DTV broadcasts have been run up the tower and hung out to die. Some of these opportunities include:

  • HDTV. HD is turning into a premium niche market for cable and DBS, not to mention a profitable product niche for consumer electronics manufacturers.
  • Multichannel STDV broadcasting. It's beginning to gain momentum in Europe, but U.S. broadcasters have largely ignored it, conceding the opportunity to multichannel cable and DBS, and the media conglomerates that supply more than 85 percent of all popular TV programming.
  • Datacasting. Anything that involves broadcasting data has been ignored, misunderstood and/or mishandled.

One can forgive broadcasters for taking a wait-and-see attitude about creating interactive content or delivering data services to PCs. The whole idea of broadcasting bits to devices that have more in common with a PC than a TV flies in the face of a generation of broadcasters who expect their programs to be consumed synchronously by passive couch potatoes. It is nearly impossible to cobble together a rational business model for data broadcasting, especially when it is nearly impossible to receive DTV broadcasts reliably in many areas.

At least that's been the excuse. Back in June, Broadcast Engineering stirred the waters a bit with a data broadcast. Ok, it was a highly targeted multicast, but who's quibbling? Like our readers, we are in the broadcast business. Every month tens of thousands of industry professionals receive one of our broadcasts in their mailbox. Similar to TV broadcasts, we have no control over the audience that chooses to subscribe to the print version of the magazine. They can surf the table of contents and browse a few stories; advertisers are not guaranteed that their ads will be seen or read.

The data broadcast that took place in June was somewhat different. In this case, Beyond The Headlines, an e-mail newsletter, was broadcast as IP data to the e-mail addresses of the newsletter's subscribers. This is possible because of the Internet, and the emerging reality that a very high percentage of the people who receive our printed broadcasts via the mail also have computers, e-mail addresses and the ability to surf the Web. It works because the data delivery infrastructure is reliable and we are leveraging broadly adopted standards that turn the bits into a consumable digital media product.

There is a point to this attempt to create a relevant analogy. The June 30 issue of the e-newsletter, Beyond the Headlines, included the story: “Thomson to FCC: Make broadcasters transmit full DTV power and endorse plug-and-play.”

The story explained that Thomson Consumer Electronics has called upon the FCC to expedite its approval of plug-and-play connectivity standards for cable-ready digital TV sets. A Thomson spokesman also placed blame for poor over-the-air DTV reception with broadcasters, who he said have a “lack of commitment” to full power broadcasting.

“We anticipate that the majority of consumers who will be shopping for HDTV sets will be expecting cable-ready products that work seamlessly with existing cable networks,” Thomson's David Arland wrote to W. Kenneth Ferree, the chief of the FCC's media bureau, adding that, to meet this expectation, the commission needed to adopt the pending HDTV plug-and-play agreement.

On Sept. 10, the FCC adopted the plug-and-play cable rules that Thomson was lobbying for. As for the power level issue, one might conclude that it really doesn't matter; broadcasters continue to expect cable and DBS to deliver their content to the masses.

The aspect of this story that is relevant to this column, however, is the response to the newsletter story about Thomson that was printed in the August issue of Broadcast Engineering: “The DTV Reception Debate.” The response from Pete Putman called into question the validity of Thomson's claim that low power levels are a major impediment to successful reception of DTV broadcasts, suggesting that problems with reception often stem from the way PSIP is sent out, rather than from RF. He advised Thomson to take a stance on the PSIP broadcasters are sending out. As he said, “Many broadcasters don't do this, and PSIP is what makes DTV more user-friendly.”

The PSIP problem

Earlier I noted that broadcasters could be forgiven for their apparent lack of interest in the data opportunity. However, broadcasters cannot ignore the reality that PSIP is the only form of data broadcasting universally supported by ATSC receivers (even if it is a very small universe). PSIP is a fundamental requirement to make DTV broadcasting work. Unfortunately, many broadcasters, not to mention receiver manufacturers, have made little effort to get it right.

At the heart of PSIP one will find a bunch of tables that tell the receiver how to deal with various components of a station's ATSC transport stream. One such table carries the program guide information central to the digital multichannel services offered by cable and DBS. Broadcasters can depend on ATSC receivers to receive the PSIP broadcasts that guide viewers to their programs, but only if they implement the standard properly, and only when the receiver handles the data properly.

Bottom line, if broadcasters cannot get this right, all of the opportunities to exploit data broadcasting are irrelevant. To assist broadcasters with PSIP implementations, the ATSC has published a recommended practice (A-69) for implementation of the PSIP standard (A-65); a link is provided in the Web links associated with this article.

Unfortunately, just getting PSIP right is not enough to help broadcasters exploit the data broadcasting opportunity. The ATSC has created a suite of standards for data broadcasting built around A-90, the core standard. There is no guarantee, however, that these standards will be supported in a “DTV-ready” receiver. The FCC mandate to include ATSC tuners in new receivers only requires them to deal with 8-VSB modulation and the decoders necessary for MPEG-2 video and AC3 audio. The FCC does not require support for PSIP, much less any of the data broadcast standards.

Adding to the dilemma, it is more likely that new digital receivers will implement the standards being used by cable or DBS. These multichannel systems may not be required to deliver any data from broadcasters, except perhaps for data specifically associated with a carried program.

Opportunistic datacasting

We have known for more than a decade that digital broadcasting offers the opportunity to deliver more than the video and audio program streams associated with the analog television service. Early in the standards setting process there were discussions about the ability to deliver data services alongside traditional TV programming.

Figure 1. The three categories of data that would be carried in the ATSC transport multiplex are programmed, periodic and opportunistic. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

The term opportunistic data became part of the vernacular by the late ‘90s — perhaps because of efforts by this author to evangelize the data broadcasting opportunity. In a paper delivered at a 1997 SMPTE Conference, I defined three categories of data that would be carried in the ATSC transport multiplex: programmed, periodic and opportunistic (see Figure 1).

While the concepts outlined in that 1997 paper have been standardized, implemented and deployed, the opportunity has been ignored … perhaps lost.

Cable and DBS services are rapidly deploying set-top boxes with the core technologies to exploit the data broadcast opportunity: local data and program caching to a hard disk drive (a.k.a. a PVR or DVR) and the ability to transform bits delivered to cache into services that can be displayed on the attached TV.

Dish networks recently upped the ante by offering a PVR-enabled STB as part of their standard “free” hardware packages. They understand that the ability to broadcast data to local cache is the most important tool in the arsenal of weapons needed to compete with localized cable services. For example, localized weather on demand is now a reality for many DBS subscribers.

This is becoming a tired refrain, but broadcasters have the ability to compete with the multichannel services, if they choose to do so. There are three steps to exploiting the opportunity:

  1. Ask Congress for the opportunity to create a competitive multichannel service in the broadcast spectrum.
  2. Develop a reliable infrastructure for delivery of bits in every market.
  3. Create a platform that is competitive with those offered by the other multichannel services — a platform that will allow content to be broadcast to cache for asynchronous consumption.

Broadcasters need to think of DTV as an opportunistic way to rebuild their business.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.

Send questions and comments to:cbirkmaier@primediabusiness.com

Web links

“Beyond The Headlines” story on Thomson: editorial1.industryclick.com/microsites/index.asp?srid=11266&pageid=7414&siteid=15&magazineid=158&srtype=1#thomson

August Broadcast Engineering story: “The DTV Reception Debate.” broadcastengineering.primediabusiness.com/ar/broadcasting_dtv_reception_debate/index.htm

“Program and System Information Protocol Implementation Guidelines for Broadcasters” www.atsc.org/standards/a_69.pdf

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