Going Around, Coming Around Again on the I-Way


Fin de siecle has such a fine ring to it. As the endof the century approaches, we'll use it more often, ignoring perhaps the fact thatone of the dictionary definitions of the French term is 'progressive ideas andcustoms.' Actually -- and maybe this is merely a post-Anaheim flashback -- the yearseems to be starting with a strange feeling of deja vu. For example:

Saving paper: Do you think that Dr. JohnMalone waited to place his mega-million-digital-box order with NextLevel until after itchanged its name back to General Instrument? This means that TCI could just pull out the1992 purchase order (a similar digital promise) and use it again, without having to retypeit.

Cablephone via IP: Cable telephony maystill have an opportunity to succeed, thanks to -- of all things -- the Internet. Despitea few glorious reports of up to 5 percent penetration, the phone-via-cable opportunitycontinues to flounder. Now, however, the Internet is offering cable a second chance atgetting into the voice business. The diversifying cable-modem exhibits at the Western Showpointed to several ways in which cable operators could find a 'killer app' inInternet-voice services -- possibly more appealing than faster Web-data access, which isat the heart of most cable-modem ventures today. TCI president Leo Hindery spoke warmly ofusing Internet protocol for cable telephony during his Western Show remarks.

While IP telephony still suffers from unpleasant pauses andlimited access, there's great public interest in the low pricing and the telcoalternative.

Technology is improving rapidly; indeed, a few days beforethe Western Show, ITXC Corp. (a venture set up with AT&T and VocalTec seed money)unveiled its WWeXchange to interconnect Internet-telephony providers through the Web. Ofcourse, Internet telephony via cable is appealing to interexchange carriers (includingITXC's backer, AT&T), which need local-bypass connections. This adds credence toAT&T's alleged courtship of TCI, @Home and any other local circuit into theIP-telephony world. Some cable companies -- such as U S West Media Group -- continue theiraggressive pursuit of conventional cable-telephony technology. But the best opportunitiesmay now lie in exploiting Internet and cable-modem development for more popular -- anduseful -- voice connections.

Even Silicon Valley can recycle:'Kayak' -- a name that the cable industry almost got to know in the mid-1990s,when Hewlett-Packard used it for its digital set-top boxes (later abandoned) -- is back inuse. After a respectable cooling-off period (during which H-P has apparently dropped itsonce-sizable cable agenda), H-P is using the Kayak name for a new PC-imaging workstation.Maybe it'll have better luck in that market.

What about the SSSI VBI? (No worry about losing acronyms asfin de siecle approaches.) During the 1980s, when few cared, Southern SatelliteSystems Inc. experimented with data transmission in its vertical blanking interval. Itsventures were virtually ignored. Today, when Wink, WaveTop, Intercast and otherinteractive adventurers are relying on the VBI data feed, the VBI has greater value:presumably some part of $213 million, based on what Time Warner paid to acquire SSSI lastmonth. The VBI piggybacks with TBS Superstation (also owned by Time Warner), which SSSIretransmits to almost every U.S. cable system and the 68 million homes that they reach.Hence, it's a guaranteed data path to the home, unless cable operators strip out thesatellite VBI for their own purposes. The original SSSI-WTBS deal was one of the mostlegendary deals of the early cable-satellite era: SSSI paid Ted Turner $1 for the rightsto retransmit his Atlanta TV station under regulatory guidelines at the time. Twoquestions remain: Who gets to keep the original dollar bill? And what data will be fillingthat VBI that Time Warner now so clearly controls from end-to-end?

WebTV -- forgotten, but not gone: Althoughmany cable executives would like to think that Microsoft was sandbagged by the cableMSOs' 15 million-unit order for GI's digital set-top box, the Redmond giant isinching its way into the living room through other routes. Notably, its WebTV subsidiaryis continuing to find an audience, despite problems in delivering its second-generationsystem in time for Christmas. Mitsubishi Consumer Electronics says it can't keep upwith demand for its version of the WebTV box. Other manufacturers are also hustling tofill orders, suggesting that a significant core of customers will have a Microsoft-baseddigital device in place well before new cable boxes reach households. The living-room waris just beginning. New year, familiar stories -- likely to repeat themselves through finde siecle and beyond, as we circle the wagons along the interactive highway again andagain and again.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen gets dizzy forgetting thedifference between fin de siecle and trompe l'oeil.