It's not yet a mass-market offering, but Time Warner
Cable plans to launch high-definition television programming for its digital customers in
The MSO said that beginning later this year, it will
deliver Home Box Office's HDTV programming to upgraded areas in Tampa.
For the first time, Time Warner will use 256
quadrature-amplitude-modulation transport delivered to the TV set through
Scientific-Atlanta Inc. "Explorer 2000" set-top boxes incorporating additional
circuit boards for HDTV compatibility.
Jim Chiddix, Time Warner's chief technical officer,
said the QAM transport marks a significant advancement over the operator's interim
offering of HDTV to customers in its New York and Los Angeles markets using 8
vestigial-sideband modulation on a UHF-channel assignment.
"It's a terrible waste of spectrum, but it is a
way to get signals on so customers with HDTV sets can watch something," Chiddix said
of the VSB solution. "The next step is what we're doing in Tampa."
While the VSB-modulated signal is the only way owners of
first-generation HDTV sets could get HDTV programming, the "Explorer 2000HD" and
HDTV-capable set-tops planned by General Instrument Corp. and other vendors convert
cable's QAM signal to VSB.
That capability will eventually be integrated into the
television, but for now, Time Warner will order a small, undisclosed inventory of
HDTV-capable set-tops, which cost in the range of $1,000 apiece, to provision what it
expects to initially be limited demand from early-adopter customers.
The plans for deployment follow field tests in Tampa.
Chiddix said the MSO does not plan to impose any special surcharges on Tampa digital
subscribers who request HDTV set-tops.
"The idea at this point is just to get the ball
rolling," Chiddix said. "The volume is small, but it's strategic."
Like VSB transport, the current-generation Explorer 2000HD
is regarded as an interim solution because it does not yet address factors such as
copyright protection for digital programming.
Although the signal between the set-top and the HDTV set is
analog, Chiddix said, the movie industry still has concerns about unauthorized copying of
high-quality analog signals, making it unlikely that studios will allow pay-per-view sales
across that interface.
"That said, it's a perfectly workable near-term
solution for other types of signals, like HBO's," he added.
S-A expects an updated Explorer version by the end of this
year, incorporating an interface based on the IEEE 1394 "fire-wire" standard for
relaying digital signals from the set-top to the HDTV set, according to Bill Wall,
S-A's technical director for subscriber networks.
Vendors continue to work on point-of-deployment security
modules that will provide the digital copyright-protection capabilities that are necessary
for set-tops sold at retail, although the cable and consumer-electronics industries have
not finalized specifications for the POD.
Time Warner's limited expansion of its HDTV offerings
reflects the overall lack of HDTV programming and the modest consumer demand for expensive
Direct-broadcast satellite operators EchoStar
Communications Corp. and DirecTV Inc. have announced plans to offer HDTV-compatible
receivers later this year, but so far, they are limiting their HDTV availability to
equipment for showing HDTV programs at retail displays.