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Multicasting: the practical engine that’s driving public TV’s digital transition

Overview: What is it, and how many channels does it add to public TV?

Repeats: The rationalists' preference for additional channels

Education: An offer that fits the mission and public policy

Online access: How Texas stations aim to bring new media to the outback

Local and regional programs: Hopes for coverage that's often squeezed out of public TV today

Specialized genres: Replicating the model that works for cable

Option 3: Online access

A paying job for Texas stations: extending online access

Adapted from Current, April 22, 2002

A "channel" in DTV is not necessarily a broadcast video channel. By transmitting computer data in a smaller fraction of the bitstream, a station can not only offer new services to new people but also tap new sources of income.

This is the idea behind this year's APTS proposal for federal Farm Bill funding to develop broadband services for rural areas where cable and DSL lines don't go. The bid for a dedicated grant program, pushed by APTS President John Lawson, didn't advance in Congress this year, but APTS is now seeking to make stations eligible for other rural infrastructure money in the Farm Bill.

This is what the New Jersey Network is doing in a more urban setting--datacasting job-skills training to computers at multiple sites around the state.

And it's also the idea behind a new educational network in Texas that won state funding to pubcasters for the first time in that state.

The Texas Public Broadcasting Educational Network, which will ride on DTV broadcasts by the state's 14 public TV stations, takes less of the digital bitstream than any decent broadcast channel--1.5 Mbps, or less than a tenth of its capacity--but will be able to convey huge volumes of digitized educational materials to personal computers with cheap DTV tuner cards. It probably will carry text material resembling web pages as well as streaming audio and video files.

In computer terms, the new network will amount to an intranet among the stations with a capacity equal to a T1 line, serving rural areas where T1 lines would be prohibitively expensive, says Rod Zent, g.m. of KAMU in College Station. Since many schools have T1 lines, this will double their capacity. If demand exceeds 1.5 Mbps, he says, the stations may be able to transmit even more capacity, especially at night. Since the network downloads material over the air into computers with hard drives, vast resources can be stored for users to tap on demand.

The funding didn't come directly from the state legislature, which traditionally has refused to assist pubcasters, but from the Texas Infrastructure Fund, which aids schools, colleges, libraries and nonprofit health care organizations with proceeds from a tax on cell phones.

In exchange for distributing the network, stations will receive $20 million for DTV conversion, making it possible to put the narrowband network on the air. The conversion funding will supply only a piece of the Texas stations' conversion budget, estimated at more than $75 million, but the stations aim to seek matching funds from PTFP, CPB, foundations and corporate donors.

Collaboration is a new thing for the Texas stations, which have operated very independently in the past and which needed to build mutual trust, says Joyce Herring, g.m. of KACV in Amarillo, who worked on the project with Zent and Donald Dunlap, president of KEDT in Corpus Christi.

Of the $20 million, about $3 million will go toward interconnection costs and pilot projects, and most of the rest will go to the 14 stations in equal grants of $975,000 each. But the stations also agreed that the 10 smaller stations, with fewer resources, will receive additional hardship grants of $375,000 each, according to Herring.

The infrastructure fund approved the project in a grant to Texas A&M University last August, according to Herring. Though the project is no secret, it has not yet had a formal public announcement.

TIFB did stay true to Texas tradition by not handing state money or editorial control to public broadcasters. A committee of reps from state agencies, including but not dominated by pubcasters, will make the program decisions. And the programming won't come from Bill Moyers or even from Nova.

When an inaccurate newspaper article on the project reported that PBS had gotten its finger into the state treasury, "that went over really horrible," says Zent

What persuaded the state decision-makers to back the new network, Herring says, was the argument that it would improve access to workforce training and other valuable information for rural Texans and other digital have-nots. "They did not want to fund Nova or Sesame Street or any of that," she says.

Educators will be able to do many things at the low bitrate, and the Texas stations couldn't afford to commit to a broader channel with its higher interconnection and operating costs, Herring says. "It's kind of nice to know you can video-stream the programming and grow it out, rather than start large and cut back." Broadband may be down the road, she says.

So far, only the Dallas and Houston stations have started their DTV transmitters, but Zent expects all 14 stations to be operating by May 2003.

—Steve Behrens

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Outside link: Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board, funder of the access project.

Web page posted Aug. 6, 2002
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