Tune In Software (On Your FM Radio)
Tom R. Halfhill Features Editor
Don't touch that dial! FM radio could do a lot more than provide background music while you're programming – when a new venture to broadcast software gets under way next year. "We're thinking about transmitting the Top Ten programs each month," says Stephen Wozniak, cofounder of Apple.
It's another late night and you're slaving over a hot computer, wearily wearing your fingers to the nubs typing in that huge program listing for "Space Marathon V. 98.6." Surely, in this age of computerization, there must be a better way, you think grumpily for the hundredth time. Meanwhile, you tune your FM radio to a favorite station for background music.
An idea strikes: what if you could download programs off the air, much like the way data is transmitted over phone lines between computers with modems?
Your brainstorm is too late. Somebody has already thought of it.
Starting in January – if plans go according to schedule – a pilot project will get under way in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area. Computer programs will be broadcast over the FM airwaves by National Public Radio stations into the homes and businesses of charter subscribers. The programs (and other digital information) will be decoded by special "radio modems" leased for a monthly fee, and fed directly into computers, terminals, or printers – maybe even while the subscribers sleep. Six months after this test project, plans call for the service to expand nationally, bouncing the signals off a satellite to all cities leached by NPR stations.
The operation will be run by INC Telecommunications, a newly formed partnership between the nonprofit NPR network and the National Information Utilities Corporation (NIU), a supplier of telecommunications services and information products. The joint venture brings together two vital components: NPR's satellite transmission network and NIU's telecomputer hardware.
NPR, known for its news ("All Things Considered"), educational programs, and classical and jazz music, broadcasts over a national network of 267 FM stations by leasing 12 channels on Westar IV, a Western Union communications satellite. The new service will take advantage of this same network. NIU is contributing the technology for encoding and decoding the data into radio signals, including the small "radio modems" which subscribers will lease.
For Business And Home
Although the system is designed to have wide business applications, in some cases replacing the use of phone lines for beaming computer information throughout the country, INC is playing up the home applications, too. Significantly, two backers of INC are Stephen Wozniak – co-founder of Apple Computer – and Jack R. Taub, founder of the Source Telecomputing Corporation, which owns The Source. The Source is one of the major information utilities for personal computerists with phone modems. Taub started NIU in 1981. Wozniak is helping on the software end, putting together the programming which will attract home subscribers.
Already they are talking about such things as the "Video Game of the Week." We might even see a new definition of radio's traditional "Fop 40": tomorrow's "hit list" may well be the most popular computer programs instead of records. It could open up a huge new market for the cottage software industry, provide specialized information for certain groups of subscribers, and possibly even reduce software prices by drastically cutting distribution costs.
"Wozniak is really excited about this as a way of getting the prices of software down so people are less inclined to steal it," says Jack Ault, president of NIU. "He thinks we can get the software down to the point where it is so inexpensive that it will be actually cheaper and easier for the person to download it at home than to go out and pirate it. Plus you would get all the support inherent in that."
The Little Black Box
The key to the system is what Ault calls a "radio modem," a book-sized black box linking personal computers and terminals to the airwaves. Actually, the box is not a true "modem," which means "modulator-demodulator," a two-way device. The radio modem is strictly a one-way device, a demodulator. Crammed into the eight-inch by four-inch by two-inch deep box with the demodulator is an FM subcarrier receiver controllable from the point of transmission. It's very much like the black boxes leased to subscribers by certain pay-TV stations known as "super TV."
Each box is individually addressable by a computer at the transmission source. For example, if subscribers to these "super TV" services pay an extra fee to watch a championship boxing match, the station remotely activates their black boxes – and no one else's – for the duration of the fight. Everyone else gets a scrambled signal. The same thing can be done with the new computer service: highly specialized software and data can be broadcast to only those customers who are interested in receiving it (and in paying for it). Subscribers would receive only the programs or data they have subscribed to.
Because the radio modem is controllable from the transmission point, unattended reception is possible, too. As Ault envisions it, someday the radio modem will be left on 24 hours a day. Just before a transmission is sent to a certain group of subscribers, a signal is broadcast to their modems which switches on their computers or terminals. After the information is received and stored on disk or printed out, another signal is broadcast to turn off the devices. It could all happen while a subscriber sleeps.
The radio modems, now at the working prototype stage, have RS-232 interfaces to be compatible with practically any computer or terminal. Ault says an IEEE-488 interface is in the works, too. The modem includes a buffer memory to temporarily store incoming information, so it will work not only with computers and smart terminals, but also with dumb terminals and stand-alone printers. The modems will be leased, not sold, and will be serviced by INC Telecommunications at regional service centers.
If you're worried about losing your favorite NPR programs to an unintelligible stream of digitally encoded bleeps, don't be. The computer transmissions will be inaudible to regular FM radio listeners. The new service will broadcast on a "subcarrier," an unused portion of the frequency band assigned to each NPR station. Some NPR stations, for example, now use subcarriers to broadcast special programming for the blind. The new service uses a different subcarrier and will not displace this programming.
Tuning In To VisiCalc
What sorts of services can we expect from INC? Just about everything, it seems. Ault points out that the system can distribute data on a regional, as well as national, basis.
Businesses and the government can lease time to transmit data to remote offices throughout the country, bypassing costly phone lines. Businesses could also subscribe to receive specialized business news and stock reports. School systems could sign up to receive special educational software and information. Home computer users could subscribe to get the programs and information that interest them. It seems that INC is aiming to do for telecomputing what cable is doing for television: providing a selection of subscription services for specialized audiences.
Wozniak foresees a big future in the mass distribution of software directly to homes and businesses. People could sign up to buy word processing packages or VisiCalc over the air, and even games. He thinks this could slash software prices by reducing the packaging and distribution costs, and also by piling up massive sales in a very short time. Instead of selling a program the usual way for $200, it could be offered to INC subscribers for $50. If 10,000 subscribers signed up, the software producer would reap $500,000 – in one day, and without packaging or shipping a single disk.
As a bonus, revisions and patches for bugs could be transmitted at very little cost to everyone who bought the original program, says Wozniak. Demo versions of programs could even be transmitted as advertisements. Video game fanatics could subscribe to the "Game of the Week" and be assured that they're the first on the block to get every new release.
"We're thinking about transmitting the Top Ten programs each month, plus maybe another 100 of the lower-end, lesser-known programs," says Wozniak. "My concept of it is that perhaps all 100 programs that are transmitted every month are sent each day. So users who perhaps don't have much memory could save a few different programs each day of the month, try them out, and decide whether to keep them or not."
That ought to satisfy even the most brain-fried video game freaks.
How Much Will It Cost?
At this point, you're probably wondering how much it will cost to subscribe to this new service. The answer isn't clear yet. Wozniak speculates that the monthly subscription fee might be something like $20 to $50. INC's backers promise it will be ' cheaper than mass downloading of programs and information over phone lines from existing utilities such as The Source or CompuServe. Their argument is that a one-way system is inherently cheaper than a two-way system. Anyway, they say, INC is intended to complement, rather than compete with, the phone-linked information utilities. Each system has its own applications. The INC system, which is described as "point-to-multipoint" instead of "point-to-point," is better suited to mass distribution than the phone-line systems.
"There's no way 100,000 people could tie up 100,000 phone lines downloading something from
The Source," explains Wozniak.
In other words, by its nature, the new service will share all the advantages that mass telecommunications media have over single-channel communications lines. It's more efficient for a radio station to broadcast the news at once to thousands of listeners than it is to individually call up those people on the telephone and tell them what's happening.
"It's such a simple and efficient system, and so obvious, in fact, that you wonder why it hasn't been done before," says Wozniak. "Maybe it just makes too much sense. Sometimes things that make good sense are so obvious that nobody sees them."
Care to doubt this reasoning? Just remembei. Wozniak took another obvious idea in his garage .1 few years ago and put together the Apple I computer – which made him a millionaire. He thinks the INC service could prove equally popular. So popular, in fact, that he doesn't see the need for .1 big push to sell the new service to consumers.
"I don't think that'll be necessary, not once word gets around. It'll catch on, just like The Source caught on."
Figure 1. FM SCA Subcarrier Data Delivery – local FM stations are the final link in the transmission.
Figure 2. Using a satellite network with the FM SCA Subcarrier System brings a computer program through space to our company