Canadian MSO Goes Interactive

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Canadian cabler Le Groupe Vidéotron Itée has joined the short list of cablers
opting for full interactivity using a system jointly developed by
Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and PowerTV Inc.

Vidéotron has started marketing its 'iLLICO' interactive service -- offering
electronic mail, Web browsing, chat and local content -- to some 100,000
digital-TV customers. It is the first full commercial launch for the joint
S-A/PowerTV interactive system.

The iLLICO service uses basic 'Explorer 2000' and '3000' set-top boxes. The
boxes are running a PowerTV HyperText Markup Language applications engine, S-A
network software and a crop of applications including e-mail, chat and Web
surfing jointly designed by the two vendors.

While on the less sophisticated end of S-A's digital-box lineup, the 2000 and
3000 units are designed to accept software upgrades via download. That is key in
delivering some of the applications, which actually run from headend servers,
according to PowerTV vice president of marketing Chuck Kaplan.

'There are some applications that reside in the box and some applications
that actually download upon use,' Kaplan explained. 'So you can install them on
a server in a headend and have them downloading each times a user invokes the
use of those.'

Customers will be assigned e-mail addresses for the system, rather than using
existing e-mail accounts from other Internet-service providers. They also can
opt to buy S-A keyboards.

Vidéotron, meanwhile, has used the system's open-specifications platform to
create its own 'walled garden' electronic-commerce channel. Kaplan said that is
going to be an important selling point for interactive TV.

'When it comes to developing walled-garden content, more and more, I think,
cable operators are bringing in more of their preferences for content and
wanting to define what it looks like and how it operates,' he added.

Another key strategy is to allow the video window to stay active while users
surf the Web or use an e-mail application.

'So you are still watching TV while you surf the Web or do e-mail,' Kaplan
said. 'That's really one of the important parts of the interface design is that
it still is TV.'

Industrywide, shaky economic conditions, uncertain business models and
competing telephony and data priorities have put interactive-TV service
offerings on a back burner for many North American MSOs. Kaplan hopes the
Vidéotron rollout will rekindle interest.

'Vidéotron really took a proactive approach toward getting these
Internet-on-TV features up and running and launched to a large consumer
segment,' he said. 'I think there are a whole lot of folks watching now who want
to see what are the penetration rates and what are consumers willing to pay.
Just watching what is happening in Montreal now is an opportunity to create a
lot more interest.'

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