Digital, Interactivity Stir up Tech Talk It NAB Confab


Las Vegas -- The transition to digital broadcasting and all
of the new services that it supports dominated technology displays and announcements at
last week's National Association of Broadcasters Convention here.

Whether it was new gear and software enabling broadcasters
to push Internet or other data streams with their video transmissions, or announcements by
a bevy of ambitious new entrants to the U.S. conditional-access business, or gear for
producing and transmitting digital programming, digital, interactive and data were the

Meanwhile, cable set-top suppliers General Instrument Corp.
and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. had some goodies on display, too. S-A even showed off -- but
wouldn't talk about -- its upcoming "Explorer 6000."

"People see it as a given that video and data are
going to merge," said Clint Chao, vice president of marketing for Mountain View,
Calif.-based SkyStream Corp., which showed its solution for integrating Internet data with
broadcast video.

Broadcasters facing declining advertising revenue and
fractured audiences were deluged by a dizzying array of vendors touting solutions for
multicasting, electronic commerce and video-on-demand as tools to tap the exploding
revenue potential of the Internet.

"The Internet changes everything," Oracle Corp.
chairman Larry Ellison told the audience packing his lengthy keynote address to the
convention's Multimedia World session track. "All electronic devices are going
to be attached to the Internet."

Oracle unveiled its "iTV" platform, which uses
its own database, server and subscriber-management products, plus operating-system
software developed by other vendors such as OpenTV Inc. (partly owned by Sun Microsystems
Inc.), to offer e-commerce, VOD and digital VCR-type recording and time-shifting
applications over a remote server-based network.

The setup is already being used by British Interactive
Broadcasting, a free offering of News Corp.'s British Sky Broadcasting Group
plc's digital-satellite network that has been drawing 100,000 subscribers per month
for interactive services including banking, games, Web browsing and e-mail.

Oracle also pitched the system's data-warehousing
capabilities, which it said give broadcasters and multichannel-video providers the
opportunity for individualized advertising and programming.

EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network showed
similar capabilities with its own solution, the new "DISHPlayer" receiver.

The DISHPlayer incorporates WebTV Networks'
Internet-access capabilities using a direct-broadcast satellite receiver with an
8.6-gigabyte hard drive capable of recording eight hours of programming and supporting a
programming "pause" feature.

The setup also includes a wireless keyboard that can be
used either for WebTV functionalities, such as Internet surfing and e-mail, or for
navigating an enhanced electronic program guide with keyword and viewer-configured search

EchoStar said viewers can initially access the Internet at
speeds of 2 megabits per second, although the system has downstream capability of 30 mbps
that will be utilized once the company sorts out some of the loading issues associated
with such bandwidth. The return path is through a 56-kilobit-per-second telephone-line

EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen said the product is
currently shipping to Dish outlets with a $499 suggested retail price. "We think that
we can sell all that we can build this year," Ergen added.

Competitor DirecTV Inc., in its first NAB exhibit,
previewed a "combination" receiver built by Thomson Consumer Electronics that it
said will be available at retail for $699 this summer, incorporating high-definition
television support and an integrated over-the-air antenna.

But like DirecTV, EchoStar is approaching HDTV support
slowly, due to nascent consumer demand and insufficient HDTV programming, and because of
unresolved copy-protection and other issues that could render new hardware obsolete in a
couple of years.

Ergen said EchoStar has shipped its retailers a module
enabling them to demonstrate HDTV programming in their stores, such as feeds from Home Box
Office. An HDTV adapter will be available for the DISHPlayer later this year, but a
high-end HDTV-capable receiver will not be available until sometime next year.

"We chose to put our engineering resources into a
product that we can sell a lot of, rather than HDTV, which we don't think we can sell
a lot of," Ergen said.

EchoStar also discussed datacasting plans with OpenTV, one
of many providers touting datacasting solutions at the show.

OpenTV said its set-top operating system, which has been
deployed primarily by direct-to-home satellite operators outside of the United States,
will be launched by Dish and BSkyB during the fourth quarter.

The company said DBS operators will use its
"OpenStreamer 1.0" interactive-television software to provide their own
applications -- such as a suite of dedicated interactive channels for various e-commerce
merchants -- and whatever multicasting they can entice programmers to join them in.

"This looks more like the world that broadcasters live
in than like the world that they've been trying to get into," OpenTV senior vice
president of marketing and operations Mitchell Berman said, referring to two-way data

The "Big Two" cable set-top vendors were also out
in force.

Among the digital-broadcasting transmission and reception
gear being demonstrated at S-A's convention-center pavilion was an HDTV- and
standard-definition-compatible version of its "Explorer 2000" set-top box.

The new model, incorporating a daughterboard that adds HDTV
capability to the standard Explorer 2000, is not expected to be deployed widely, in part
because it sells for $1,000 or more.

One of the more intriguing cable-related items at the show
was not even officially on display: S-A's next-generation Explorer 6000 set-top box.

S-A plans to officially unveil the product within weeks,
and it declined to discuss its specs at the NAB Convention. But the unit was on display at
the S-A pavilion as a prop for another interesting product -- its point-of-deployment
security module.

GI also displayed HDTV-enabling equipment, although, like
S-A, it sees limited demand for the gear just now.

An HDTV-decoder set-top aimed at early adopters is not yet
commercially available, and it is likely to be integrated with later versions of the
"DCT-5000+" advanced set-top, initial versions of which are to ship this summer,
according to GI associate vice president of product marketing Kevin Wirick.