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April 26, 1998

Phoenix company broadcasts Web
pages using television signals

By Timothy C. Barmann

All around us, radio waves carry television shows, radio broadcasts and cellular phone conversations.

Now add to that list: World Wide Web pages.

A Phoenix-based company has come up with an ingenious idea to broadcast Web pages over the air. You don't need a phone line to receive them and the pages continually stream into your computer, as long as it's running.

You can receive sections of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and check updated stock prices, just for starters. Best of all, the service is free.

But before you drop your Internet access account, read on.

The service is called WaveTop, and it's the brainchild of a company by the same name, which is a division of WavePhore Inc. of Phoenix.

WaveTop has made deals with a number of well-known media outlets and information providers to broadcast their Web pages using television signals.

To send its broadcasts, WaveTop uses PBS's nationwide network of 264 stations, which reaches 99 percent of U.S. households, according to WaveTop. The service was launched earlier this month to 50 markets, including WSBE Channel 36 in Providence and WGBH Channel 2.

Here's how if works. The Web pages are converted into a television signal that is ``injected'' into the PBS broadcasts. The files are sent on what's called the ``vertical blanking interval,'' or VBI, which are the black lines at the top and bottom of the television picture that you don't normally see.

VBI has been used for years to send other kinds of information, including closed captions for the hard of hearing.

Though WaveTop uses television signals, you can't see it on your TV. Instead, you need a special device in your computer called a TV tuner card, which lets you watch TV on your computer. Those generally cost between $85 and $150.

(Only 85 percent of the tuner cards available are compatible with the service, so check with WaveTop before you buy one.) As long as you can tune into a PBS station by antenna or cable, you get receive the WaveTop broadcasts.

The Wavetop software continually decodes the Web page broadcasts and stores them on your PC, ready for you to view them.

The software is free, and can be downloaded or ordered on CD-ROM from the WaveTop Web site (http://www.wavetop.net).

The software includes a customized version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which you use to view the Web pages WaveTop sends you.

The WaveTop service itself is free and is paid for by advertisers.

I've been trying out WaveTop for the past couple weeks, thanks to a tuner card provided by WaveTop. It worked as advertised, with the exception of a few bugs, which are to be expected with a new service.

I did have some trouble getting it up and running.

A cable that came with the TV card that was supposed to plug into my sound card didn't fit. WaveTop sent me another, but that didn't work either.

WaveTop directed me to the maker of the TV card, ADS Technologies. The technician there had a lame solution: go to Radio Shack and try to find the correct cable.

That could be a problem for countless other computer owners who have the same model sound card -- a popular one called Sound Blaster made by Creative Labs. I bought mine about three or four years ago, which is ancient in computer years. A WaveTop technician said newer Sound Blaster cards don't have the same cable trouble.

I don't have a cable television wire running near my computer so I had to buy a pair of rabbit ears -- those TV-top antennas. They're ugly, but they worked.

I installed the WaveTop software from a CD-ROM and once it started running, the receiver part of the software indicated it was receiving files. About a half hour later I was able to see a few Web pages. But it wasn't until the next day, after leaving my computer on for several hours, that more of the content appeared.

That's because the data streams in at only about 28.8 Kpbs, which is about the speed of today's standard modems. In a 17-hour broadcast day, that amounts to about 170 megabytes of data, according to WaveTop. (New files replace older ones so you don't need a bottomless hard drive.)

Sandy Goldman, WaveTop's senior vice president and general manager, said the company is looking into doubling that speed soon.

The advertisements weren't overwhelming. But one irritating ad on the home page was launched inadvertantly whenever I clicked on several links near a small banner ad in the upper left hand corner.

There is clearly a downside to WaveTop. First, the service is not interactive. You can't choose which sites you want to view, beyond the dozen or so WaveTop decides to broadcast.

Fortunately, the company has convinced some big players to partner with them, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time Inc., Ziff-Davis, CBS Sports, Quote.com, Yahoo! and The Weather Channel.

Some of these companies provide special Web pages just for the WaveTop service, such as the Wall Street Journal, while others are now providing the same site they put on the Internet, including USA Today.

Still, many of the links on the sites didn't work. If the page hasn't been sent to your computer, you'll get the annoying message: ``This page is not in the WaveTop cache!''

There's no way to know before clicking on a link whether it's stored on your computer or not. You can connect to the Internet and view that link, but going on-line defeats the purpose of WaveTop.

Goldman said the company hopes to address that frustration by persuading its content providers to build Web pages specifically for the WaveTop service that don't have outside links to the Internet.

The Wall Street Journal is doing that now with a pared-down version of its site. The newspaper sends WaveTop users about 7 to 10 of its top stories, which are continually updated during the day.

The service itself has a number of irritating bugs. For example, sometimes clicking on the menu that lists the content areas mistakenly brings up the Web page for an advertisement.

The links did not always operate properly. For example, I clicked on a headline on USA Today's page about the FAA and airline engine inspections and was brought to a story about an Easter Egg roll at the White House.

The most serious problem was that for several days, I couldn't view the service's home page. I kept getting the error message that the page I was trying to access was not stored on my computer. I couldn't access any of the other content areas either, even though a different part of the program showed that it was continually receiving the broadcasts.

A WaveTop technician told me that was probably because I was using a preview version of the software, rather than the newer software the company shipped after its launch.

The biggest barrier for potential users of WaveTop is the fact that you need to buy extra hardware in order to use it. According to Goldman, there were 750,000 tuner cards sold last year, which amounts to about 2 percent of the 36 million homes that have PCs.

He said he thinks Windows `98 will be a big boost to his company because Microsoft has agreed to bundle the WaveTop software in its latest operating system, due out in June.

(News.com reported in March that Microsoft owned 500,000 shares of WavePhore, Wavetop's parent company. That accounts for about 2.7 percent of its outstanding shares. WavePhore is traded on the Nasdaq market under the symbol WAVO.)

WaveTop is a neat service. I recommend anyone who has a TV tuner card to try it out. It also might be worth the extra expense and trouble of buying and installing the tuner card for someone who is interested in sampling part of the Internet to get a taste of some of the most popular sites.

Unfortunately, you can't go without an Internet connection altogether. That's because WaveTop requires you to go on-line every so often to send them your WaveTop usage statistics -- the company wants to know what sites you are looking at.

Data broadcasting over television signals is a great idea. Despite the negatives, WaveTop has done a good job in tapping into this technology, and I think we are only at the threshold of something big. Stay tuned for better things to come over the TV waves.

WaveTop requirements:

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.