Feeding the info highway

Medialinx Interactive, the content supplying arm of Stentor's Beacon initiative to bring the information highway through the living rooms of Canadians, is off the ground - fueled by ambitious plans and $250 million over five years.Fred Klinkhammer, an executive with 24...

Medialinx Interactive, the content supplying arm of Stentor’s Beacon initiative to bring the information highway through the living rooms of Canadians, is off the ground – fueled by ambitious plans and $250 million over five years.

Fred Klinkhammer, an executive with 24 years’ experience in the entertainment and communications industry, will be president and chief executive officer of the company.

In September, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission gave telephone companies the go-ahead to produce electronic content.

Klinkhammer says it is his job as head of MediaLinx to make sure that by the time the phone companies have laid down their fibre optics-based version of the trans-Canada information highway, there will be something more to put on it than just videos-on-demand.

But, right now, that plan hinges on the development of ‘smart agent’ software that will make the highway navigable.

By Klinkhammer’s own admission, MediaLinx is starting with little but this big plan.

‘In fairness, we have nothing,’ he says.

Klinkhammer says there has been some work done on what people call normal language agents that respond to verbal instructions, but he envisions something far more comprehensive.

‘I’m talking about an agent that sits invisible underneath,’ Klinkhammer says.

‘That learns something about our habits,’ he says.

‘The way we watch a newscast. The way we use the information that is there, and, actually, over time, does a better and better job for us. Something that works for us.’

Klinkhammer says it is the development of this agent that will make MediaLinx an invaluable component of the network.

‘We think it is key to the MediaLinx initiative,’ he says. ‘We think that is the central value added for both consumers and businesses. We are clearly the developer of that agent.’

Klinkhammer sees the development of the underlying software as the fundamental purpose of the new company.

MediaLinx intends to limit its role in actual content development to forming partnerships and establishing technological uniformity.

‘When it comes to a specific application, or a specific form of entertainment, we do not see ourselves as either the developers or the funders of that,’ Klinkhammer says.

He says any content investment on the part of MediaLinx will depend on a variety of factors, including which of seven subject areas, or silos, as he calls them, is being considered.

MediaLinx is interested in developing content in the areas of healthcare, learning, information, financial services, shopping, entertainment, and government services.

Along with multimedia content of this type, MediaLinx aspires to set up a system that will easily incorporate control of household appliances, including the telephone, computer, television, and furnace.

Klinkhammer feels there is unfair perception that MediaLinx aspires to exercise excessive control over what information travels on the Stentor network.

He predicts there will be many other companies in the role of content provider, and he sees the position of gatekeeper as untenable.

‘We expect there will be other media links formed in this country, other consortiums will come together to do this as well as us,’ Klinkhammer says.

‘We also think there will be existing services and businesses who operate their own gateways and deal directly with the phone companies for transportation,’ he says.

‘There is no gatekeeper role for MediaLinx. There is a value-added role. It’s too expensive to do things over and over again by yourself as single one-off initiatives. At the end of the day, [all the companies] will need research and development done in terms of navigation of databases.

‘We think we can do this once, and make it available to our partners. We think that’s easier than it is for everyone to try and do it alone, and then try to make [the systems] interoperable in the future.’

According to Klinkhammer, there is also a real need for someone to take the initiative in terms of setting legal precedents, and settling privacy issues.

‘It’s complex new legal ground that has to be worked through,’ he says. ‘You can do it once, and have it apply to any number of joint ventures where people can share that knowledge.’

It is expertise in these and a variety of other areas that Klinkhammer foresees as a strong selling point when businesses look to MediaLinx for information highway partnerships.

‘Inside our core, we have engineering specialists, architecture specialists, finance specialists, all of whom are available as one of the assets,’ he says. ‘We put cash and a set of skills on the table.’

Klinkhammer says advertising will be kept very much in mind as MediaLinx makes its content decisions, but he warns the company may be an inappropriate choice for some advertisers.

‘Brand identification is not something we’ll be able to do a good job of,’ he says. ‘It’s not us, it’s broadcast television. What we’ll be able to do an excellent job in is transactional advertising.

‘The people that are in the direct response business today will likely become significant customers of ours.’

While Klinkhammer is still making predictions of which advertisers may or may not be interested in MediaLinx, the cable-based competition is already finalizing deals with content providers for in-home interactive, multimedia services.

Pierre Dion, general manager of Videoway Multimedia, the sales and marketing division of the cable-based ubi system, which is planning a 34,000-household test in Chicoutimi, Que. next September, says he is aware ‘there will be other products, other press conferencing saying `We want to do this,’ or `We want to do that.’

‘We’ll be in the homes first,’ Dion says. ‘That’s good news. If we have a good product, why would people want to change?’

‘Our strategy right now is to have the best product, the best price and be into homes as fast as we can,’ he says.

By the end of October, MediaLinx, with NB Tel, Maritime Tel & Tel, and Bell Canada will announce Info/Canada, a kiosk-based system that governments can use to provide basic services at a lower cost.

‘They should be in service in March,’ says Klinkhammer, referring to them as a ‘dry-run’ for MediaLinx.

MediaLinx expects to begin offering in-home services to Canadians by the fourth quarter of next year, about the same time users in Chicoutimi will be pulling onto the ubi highway.