A New Internet?

A broadcast pioneer plans to beam data free of charge over TV broadcast spectrum

P> John Abel says the Internet is "stupid." His face looks tired. He's got these monster bags under his eyes. But it's no wonder, because he's pioneering a model for the alternative Internet.

"Anything on the Internet that millions of people want should be data broadcast," said Abel. "Why should the Internet be tied up with a bunch of people trying to get sports scores?"

Abel is the leading developer of digital datacasting, a market that could zap out large chunks of the on-line services industry faster than surfing away from a boring commercial.

Abel's aim -- other than making money -- is to clean up the Internet. Abel said the Internet is becoming an antique.

Call it the dumbing down of the Internet. He wants to get unnecessary information, such as game scores and newspapers, off the Internet and broadcast it via good old-fashioned TV spectrum -- just the ideal medium. And he's got the ideal solution: datacasting.

Datacasting distributes information to many different points. The term covers technologies such as direct broadcast services and Business Television. Abel has targeted a new segment of the market called digital datacasting, which piggybacks multimedia information via a television transmission channel to a computer.

"The digital broadcast market is set for an explosive growth before the end of the millennium," said Tom Schaffnit, director of telecommunication systems strategies for Nordicity Group Ltd. in Ottawa, Canada. "The impetus is to do it now because it's going to move like the Internet."

Accordingly, Abel will offer free digital broadcast service to people who have a data receiver installed in their computer. The device will cost from $12 to $100.

Abel is talking to computer manufacturers such as Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. to get the data receivers packaged inside computers. Services provided by Abel will include educational material, electronic coupons, telephone directories, computer games and up-to-the-minute game scores and news.

Abel, who doesn't yet have a name for his service, plans to make the service free and 25 times faster than a current 28.8 modem. Abel said users want the freedom from subscription hassles or on-line charges.

"There is not an aspect of human communication that is not becoming digital," said Abel. "This has a monumental impact on human communication that we are just now realizing."

Formerly the president of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C., Abel arrived at the idea of digital data broadcasting through his work with high-definition television. When the digital revolution took off in 1990, he started Datacast Partners in Reston, Va., to pursue his interest in digital communication.

The service does not require new towers or television stations. Instead, Abel plans to send a digital bit stream through the current broadcast of a television transmitter. The picture and the sound would continue to flow into the user's television set, and a separate digital stream would channel into the computer. It is expected to cost television stations less than $50,000 to install a digital bit stream.

Abel has distribution partnerships with three companies that together own 25 television stations nationwide, covering 27 percent of U.S. households. He plans to attract two more partnerships and offer the service through five distributors.

He said the whole project will cost less than $10 million to launch. It is being funded by his partnerships with Chriscraft, Lin Television Corp. and Granite Broadcasting. All three have promised to fund the entire launch of the project and to provide access through their 25 television stations.

As with any new ventures, Abel will face some setbacks.

Broadcasting does not allow for two-way communication such as electronic mail, the most common use of the Internet. He also fears that consumers will be unable to understand how to use the service, which is slated for introduction in fall 1997.

Fortunately, Abel doesn't expect to face many regulatory walls.

The Federal Communications Commission is confident of the business idea Abel is developing. "John [Abel] is a pioneer in broadcasting," said Saul Shapiro, assistant bureau chief of technology policy at the FCC. "I know he is looking at this as a stepping stone for digital broadcast, an evolution in [communication]."

His main opposition will come from on-line content providers such as America Online and Prodigy.

Much of the information available through America Online, including its different research resources, can be more efficiently broadcast digitally, Abel said. AOL's less popular content will reside on its servers, but the number of subscribers would likely fall, he predicted.

America Online is not discussing Datacast Partners' plans in any of their strategies, according to Judy Tashbook, an AOL spokesperson.

So now the real question: Who will make money from this? Analysts said it is too early to tell. According to Schaffnit, by 2000, the wireless data market will be worth $8 billion, and datacasting is part of that.

However, he is certain that broadcasters are in the best position to take advantage of the market.

"They already have the content, the distribution spectrum and the channels available," said Schaffnit. "If they don't move quickly, you'll have people like Seiko, PCS and paging companies taking over."

Abel doesn't know how much money he will make or how successful he will be. But he wants competitors to start posing a challenge, which will cause the market to grow.

Even with competition though, he remains skeptical. "We are not going to be the [generation that will] realize the power of digital communication," said Abel. "It's too hard of a concept to grasp right now."

So John Abel is driven by a desire to stamp out stupidity. He is on a journey that has put wrinkles on his face and red lines through his eyes. But his motivation lies in the knowledge that he is sitting on something good -- very good. n

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