No modem needed: TV signals bring the Web to your PC
May 21, 1998
Web posted at: 2:15 PM EDT
by Michael S. Lasky
-- Need a break from your spreadsheets? Change the channel and catch
the latest sports scores. Or switch again and watch your favorite Web
pages pop onto the screen as fast as a station on your TV. And you don't
need a modem or an Internet service provider.
Web via VBI
The technology making all this possible employs a TV tuner card, inserted
in your PC, and software to decode Web pages transmitted over an unused
portion of the TV signal known as the vertical blanking interval (VBI).
WavePhore of Phoenix, Arizona, first developed the technology three
years ago, and Intel's free Intercast service has been using it since
1996 to deliver Web content related to shows on such major cable services
as CNN, QVC, and MTV.
Now WavePhore is introducing its own free software and service, WaveTop,
that works with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 to deliver Web pages
from selected major sites, at least 17 hours a day, with updates as
often as every 15 minutes. They're stored on your hard drive, so there's
no wait to see the front page of USA Today or the latest box scores
on CBS SportsLine. The software requires a Pentium-90 or better (P-133
recommended) PC with 16MB of RAM, at least 100MB of disk space, and
WaveTop is about to become ubiquitous: Microsoft, hedging its bets
on the future of PC/TV convergence, plans to incorporate WaveTop software
into Windows 98's WebTV for Windows, a feature of the forthcoming operating
system that uses a TV tuner card to receive Web-based programming delivered
via TV signals.
WaveTop broadcasts over signals from PBS's 264 member stations; when
your local station shuts down for the night, the updates stop. Content
is organized into eight "channels" that appear as buttons in IE 4.0
(the service won't work with other browsers). Except for channels from
Time Inc. and ZDNet, most of these are proprietary (NewsTop, StockTop,
KidsTop, etc.), based on content from USA Today, the Wall Street Journal,
the Weather Channel, Quote.com, and CBS SportsLine. Depending on the
number of channels you activate, WaveTop saves as much as 170MB of data
to a cache on your hard drive, which it cleans every 10 days.
Another button, GuideTop, displays a content delivery timetable--an
important feature since you can't use your tuner to watch TV while WaveTop
is downloading. If you were planning to watch a lot of TV on your monitor,
this could pose a real problem: Updates range in frequency from every
15 minutes (for Quote.com) to once a week. Also, if you leave your PC
on 24 hours a day to catch all updates (as WaveTop recommends), expect
your hard disk to click away like a metronome as long as your computer
is on and your local PBS outlet is broadcasting.
The service is free--advertisers include Barnes & Noble, the Spiegel
Catalog, Ford, and CyberMeals--but there's a catch: To receive it, you
must give WaveTop some demographic information about yourself. WaveTop
vice president Sandy Goldman says that the company supplies this information--along
with page-viewing reports--in aggregate to advertisers; individual subscriber
data stays confidential, so you won't get spammed.
Keep Your Modem
The prospect of fast, phone-free Web surfing is certainly enticing,
but you shouldn't throw away your modem yet: You'll still need conventional
Internet service to link to pages that WaveTop doesn't download.
In my tests of a beta version, the Weather Channel's pages --with their
bounty of graphically intense, up-to-the-hour weather maps--sprang onto
the screen in seconds. But when I tried to get a local forecast, I had
to wait for my modem to dial up my usual ISP. And you'll want to make
sure that you're using cable; rabbit-ear reception is too spotty.
As more PCs come equipped with TV tuners and Windows 98, WaveTop will
offer an easy option for digest-type browsing of some big-name content
partners. But it's unlikely to replace your conventional ISP anytime
soon. Speedy Web pages are cool--but only if viewers get to choose the
ones they want to see.