Broadcast Bigwigs Gather at the Western Cable Show

Cable companies have found themselves under assault from the direct broadcast satellite (DBS) forces for several years now, and they face new potential competition from local phone companies' digital subscriber line (DSL) systems. As a result, they have begun to circle their wagons in an attempt to ward off further damage.

Last week, the annual Western Cable Show took place in Anaheim, California, amid numerous technology announcements and much chest-thumping. The goal: to offer the consumer desirable new entertainment options---such as high-speed Internet access, interactive gaming, voice services, home networking, and more---in the hope that they will compete with similar services promised by satellite companies. John Malone, chief executive officer of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), predicts that "we will be putting the Internet on TV screens in large numbers very shortly."

Scientific-Atlanta, a leading hardware provider to the cable industry, unveiled a new network technology that is designed to let cable operators incrementally upgrade their capacity by as much as 16 times, allowing them to service over 120,000 homes from a single fiber-optic cable. SA says the new Prisma Dense Wave Division Multiplexing system will offer more revenue-generating interactive services at a much lower cost than traditional network architectures.

SA also announced that the Explorer 2000 digital set-top is landing in consumers' homes for the holidays; subscribers in Buffalo, New York, and Glendale, California, are first on the list with the digital services. "By pioneering the true digital interactive cable network and a revolutionary set-top box, Scientific-Atlanta is changing the way consumers view their TVs," says Jim McDonald, president and CEO of the company. "Consumers can now enjoy popular new channels with digital picture and sound and an inviting navigator, and, very soon, Internet capabilities, instant video-on-demand, e-commerce, and a host of other new services." New services also include IP Telephony, which could someday replace telephone services as we know them, and networked gaming that allows consumers to compete in real time with others on the network.

SA and Avio Digital, Inc. announced plans to use the Explorer 2000 set-top box to put cable-system operators at the center of the home-networking universe. Using Avio Digital's MediaWire home-network technology and Scientific-Atlanta's digital interactive network, the companies claim that the Explorer 2000 can be used to control digital video, audio, computer-data services, telephony, and home controls throughout the house.

According to Dr. Allen Ecker, president of Scientific-Atlanta's Subscriber Network Sector, "It is becoming evident in the industry that we will have in-home networks linking all manner of digital devices within a few years. The TV, phone, CD players, microwave oven, heating system, digital printers, cameras, and other devices will be hooked up to the system."

Avio Digital's MediaWire Home Network uses residential telephone wiring to connect devices and distribute digital media including video (DVD and HDTV), "CD-quality" audio, telephony, computer data, and home-control signals. Avio also demonstrated the MediaBox, a digital audio and video recorder equipped with a MediaWire interface that can record and play back any type of data on the MediaWire home network.

"As consumers bring more and more digital devices into the home," says Avio's Don Burtis, "they will want to easily connect the equipment and services together so they can be accessed from anywhere in the house. Set-top boxes equipped with the MediaWire interface give the cable operators the ability to be right in the center of this network."

According to the company, digital media are distributed by the MediaWire home network at effective speeds of up to 88 Mbps, with a range of over 100 feet between devices when using standard Category 3 telephone wiring. With up to 100 different devices connected together, the MediaWire home network is capable of supporting a total cable length of more than 4000 meters (about 2.5 miles). Thanks to the efficiency of the MediaWire home network, Avio claims that a single telephone wire can provide enough bandwidth to simultaneously carry 16 24-bit audio channels, four MPEG-2 video channels (6 Mbps each), eight phone or ISDN lines, and over 3 Mbps of serial control or TCP/IP (Internet) data.

Other big news at the convention included General Instrument and Sony announcing an alliance to integrate Sony's home-entertainment network technology with General Instrument's digital set-top terminals and systems. The collaboration will enable the use of Sony's Home Networking Module middleware and Aperios real-time operating system as the preferred multimedia delivery system for GI's DCT-5000+ digital cable set-top terminals. GI says it will also promote Sony's Home Networking Module as the preferred implementation of a home-network architecture using the i.LINK (IEEE 1394) digital interface (see other story).

According to Dave Robinson, senior vice president and general manager of Digital Network Systems for GI, "Incorporating Sony's home networking technologies in our products allows us to offer cable operators a simple way to pass high-definition TV signals to their customers, and it provides a powerful platform that opens the door to a whole new world of digital-based interactive services." According to GI, the DCT-5000+'s triple-tuner architecture will enable consumers to simultaneously watch TV and surf the Internet, or watch TV and talk on a phone using IP telephony.

DIVA Systems and GI also announced the delivery of DIVA's OnSet video-on-demand (VOD) service on GI's digital-cable platform using the already broadly deployed DCT 1000/1200 consumer set-top terminals. The joint effort potentially offers VOD service to more than 28 million homes currently wired with GI's interactive digital systems.

"There have been many trials of VOD in the past, but this is the first time it has been launched using interactive digital set-tops that are mass-deployed consumer products, not just limited-assembly trial set-tops," says Denton Kanouff of GI's Digital Network Systems. "Economical deployment of interactive services is now a reality with GI's DCT 1000, 1200, and 2000 interactive digital set-tops and system. GI is the first to deliver it." According to the company, the DCT-1000/1200 provides real-time RF return, MPEG-2 digital video, and Dolby Digital. Movies can be ordered by genre, actor, or alphabetically by title, and they can be controlled by the viewer with play, pause, rewind, and fast-forward functions.