Broadcast ITV: The What, The How, The Why

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It's safe to say that no one within the U.S. cable geography is more vexed by churn than the smaller operators — those focused on the wide, green swaths of the nation that aren't particularly urban.

Squeezed for capital, these often independently-owned companies are as helpless to the rich lures of DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. as small, independently-owned retail stores were when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pulled into town about 12 or so years ago, with its big, easy parking and bulk-based discounts.

Wal-Mart's mantra — "more for less" — runs parallel to the battle cries of the two direct broadcast satellite providers. Recent promotions by both DirecTV and EchoStar practically gave away the digital set-tops (which cost upwards of $200 to produce), and dropped monthly subscription fees as low as $9 per month for more than 100 digital channels.

"More for less" immediately and unpleasantly transforms the public perception of small, local cable providers into "less for more."

It used to be that "more" meant more channels, in terms of competing video offers. Small cable operators kept stride by scraping up enough cash to buy digital set-tops and digital programming — the latter, in most cases, from AT&T Broadband's Headend in the Sky (HITS) service.

Today's "more" from the satellite duo means scores of interactive features, on-demand television (albeit without local broadcasters, in many cases), and a continued downward shove on equipment prices and monthly subscription fees.

Clearly, it's not easy being a small cable operator right now.

But there's a bright spot on the horizon for cable's petite siblings. It goes by two monikers — "broadcast interactive TV" or "basic interactive" — and is envisioned as a cost-free add-on to existing digital-TV services.

Happily, it doesn't require extra equipment, or two-way plant, at the system.

Broadcast ITV is a far cry from personal video recorders and on-demand TV. But it's a far cry from nothing, too.

Broadcast ITV means pushing a button on the remote to play solitaire, or other such games. It means pushing the button to read text-based news articles on a wide range of topics, or to view extra information bound into participating TV networks — or what technologists and ITV aficionados call "virtual channels."

All of it happens translucently, atop the TV show in progress.

As the name implies, broadcast ITV involves injecting interactive applications from servers into MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Expert Group) digital broadcast streams at the satellite uplink. Again — in most cases that affect small operators — this happens at the HITS facility in Littleton, Colo. Specifically, the services are spliced into the transportation portion of the MPEG-2 video compression standard. From there, they move much like any other digital video channel, up to the satellite, and down to recipient cable headends for dispersal to digital set-tops.

To get broadcast ITV, when it is available, HITS is publicly working with Liberate Technologies Inc. for a possible launch before year-end; OpenTV Corp. is also wrangling, and Canal U.S. Plus Technologies is technologically outfitted to participate as well. Small operators will need to do one thing: Download the core of the new apps into existing digital boxes.

The thought of a global download brings to mind the words of former Cox Communications Inc. CTO Alex Best: "Every time somebody tells me it's just a software download, my knees knock." A global download is cost-free, but requires vigilant advance planning and testing to assure it doesn't inadvertently addle existing services.

After the core broadcast ITV applications are safely ensconced in the digital boxes, any "refresher" content just keeps getting sent, like a broadcast. New stuff replaces old stuff in the broadcast queue.

Tactically, it means that only the application sits in the box. When a subscriber clicks, the box displays what it can of the desired content, and opens the gate on the continuous broadcast stream to accept the associated content.

Say it's a news ticker. What shows first is the headline. Clicking on it invokes a slight delay, as the box locates the packet headers of the desired info — the addressing information, typically sent in the out-of-band broadcast stream — and links it to the visible headline.

To work properly, broadcast ITV requires applications that are written extremely tight — skeletal, really, more than svelte. While a PC-based operating system, like Microsoft Windows, typically maneuvers in double-digit megabytes of computer memory, the applications of broadcast ITV won't get a roomy welcome.

In many cases, ITV applications must be measured in kilobytes. That's because there just isn't enough memory or processing muscle in today's installed digital boxes to do much more: The Motorola DCT-2000, for example, contains about 4 megabytes of total memory.

Getting to broadcast ITV should give smaller operators a few tools to fend off subscriber churn to DBS — to shed its "less for more" wrappings, and get closer to "more for less." It'll take some doing, and it's wise to keep Best's observations close at hand during field changes. Of course, getting to an affordable set-top that contains enough processing muscle and memory to compete more vigorously is better.

That's the how of broadcast ITV. Next time, the hows and whys of set-top memory.

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