Not that most Angelenos would know it, but many local TV stations are already sending digital signals through the airwaves. They just don't have anything much to put on them.

As TV stations around the country make the transition from analog to digital broadcasting, they are confronted with an embarrassment of riches. Digital signals can be compressed into a very narrow bandwidth, narrow enough to squeeze up to five channels of programming into the same segment of spectrum occupied by a single analog channel.

What do you do with all those extra channels? A Los Angeles company called iBlast thinks it has the answer.

IBlast is creating a television network for the 21st century, a kind of interactive ABC that will use digital TV signals to send data that users can unscramble with their personal computers. Ultimately, the aim of the technology is to allow people to choose what they want to watch, when they want to watch it allowing super-fast downloads of software and other entertainment content, like movies, TV shows, music and games.

IBlast is setting up a network-affiliate type of relationship with television stations across the country, to help participating stations offer multimedia content in addition to their own broadcasts by using their excess digital channels.

IBlast was founded earlier this year by several media giants, including Tribune Co., E.W. Scripps Co., Post-Newsweek Stations, Gannett Co. and the New York Times Co., which were looking to pool their resources and make good use of the portion of the digital airwaves allocated to them by the Federal Communications Commission.

"The magic of iBlast is that it melds new media and traditional broadcasting," said company President Ken Solomon.

Like traditional broadcasting, some digital programming will be free for consumers but extras like on-demand movies, games, music and software will carry a fee. Users will be able to order content and download it directly onto their PC hard drives, but that content will come through the airwaves, not through the Internet.

TVs aren't yet PCs

All of this, of course, will have to be done using computers rather than television sets. But that won't last forever.

"You're going to have a smart television at some point in the future," said Mark O'Brien, executive vice president at media consulting firm BIA Financial Network.

Such "smart televisions" will be very unlike those sitting in living rooms today. Televisions of the future will likely combine digital television and radio broadcasts with the interactivity and vast variety of the Internet. But such a device is a long way off.


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