Comcast, Charter Unfurl ITV Resolutions for 2003

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Comcast Corp. used last week's Kagan Interactive TV Summit here to detail the first stage of its long-delayed movement into ITV, while Charter Communications Inc., previewed its second act in that arena.

A year ago, Comcast executives promised that 2002 would be its ITV coming-out party. But the Philadelphia-based MSO delayed its entry, due to a longer time frame for major-market video-on-demand rollouts and its move to acquire AT&T Broadband.

At the Kagan confab, Comcast chief software architect Jean-Pol Zundel assured attendees that VOD was on track, the AT&T Broadband acquisition was near completion — and interactive services would ramp up in 2003.

"It's going to be this game plan: Crawl, walk, run," Zundel said. "We will start in 2003 and hit scale in 2004. We need to move against [direct-broadcast satellite] and compete with cool content which makes dollars every step of the way."

Bound by "those in business development" not to release too many details over sensitivities related to the impending merger, Zundel noted that Comcast will launch ITV with a set of information services, games and some VOD connections.

One unique feature is "video links," through which subscribers can call up interactive screens to get more information on the programs they watch. The rollouts will use advanced set-top terminals, take place in major markets and benefit from considerable marketing support.

Another round of ITV features will take off in 2004, among them voting and polling, advertising and enhanced TV.

Zundel also disclosed that Comcast's souped-up VOD introduction in Philadelphia — featuring personal video recorder functionality and NBC News programming replays — will happen next month. At present, more than 1 million Comcast digital subscribers around the country can get VOD.

Charter, which already has more than 660,000 digital customers connected to its Digeo Inc. ITV virtual channels, will continue those rollouts. And select St. Louis homes are testing the operator's next ITV leap — the Moxi Media Center line of converters.

In the Moxi edition that will become available next year, Digeo product marketing vice president Peter Kellogg-Smith said customers will be able to use advanced Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. set-tops to access music, photo collections and home videos, in addition to the existing ITV assortment. A video-phone application is also in play for 2003 deployment.

Delayed deployments

Much of the summit focused on delays in ITV deployment, and whether cable operator concerns over capital spending, economic retrenchment and the stock markets would further drag things out.

Said WorldGate Communications Inc. president Gerard Kunkel: "2003 looks bleak. The marketplace is in doldrums, and we haven't found the bottom yet."

ITV has found support where it's been rolled out, Kunkel added, "but it needs to be packaged and provided in a sensible way to consumers."

OpenTV Inc. chief technology officer Vincent Dureau urged cable operators to push ITV next year, or lose the marketplace to DBS in tough economic times.

"Cable can't stay still," he said. "PVRs have become the DBS industry's answer to VOD, and they may do the same with ITV. We need operators to take the leap."

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