VOD, ITV Alive and Well in Anaheim

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Despite a large drop in attendance and minimal cable-programmer presence at last week's Western Show here, there was plenty of evidence that cable's triple-play threat of video, voice and data was alive and well.

Empty spaces within the cavernous exhibit hall — marked by wide aisles and periodic empty spaces for no-show exhibitors — didn't dampen the spirits of those in several cable technology sub-pockets.

One of those areas was video-on-demand, an arena that's been active enough to convince most cable-industry observers that the application's day has come.

"We know [subscription VOD] is very powerful," said AOL Time Warner Inc. co-chief operating officer Robert Pittman, who talked not only of Home Box Office on Demand ("it will be an absolute home run"), but of Cable News Network fare like Moneyline
or Larry King Live
potentially residing on VOD servers.

"Consumers want convenience," he said, and that's what VOD provides.

"VOD services are seeing their day," said Time Warner Cable vice president of corporate development Mike LaJoie. The MSO plans to launch VOD and SVOD services in more than a dozen markets over the next six months.

It's no longer a question of if, LaJoie said — rather, it's a matter of accumulating "critical mass to gain an advantage against the dish."

"For the first time in the industry, we have a competitive advantage over DBS," added In Demand LLC president Steve Brenner.

VOD was certainly one of the bright stars at the Western Show: More than three dozen cable systems have launched the technology to more than 3 million subscribers.

Concurrent Computer Corp. said Time Warner Cable would use its servers to deploy VOD in its Houston system, which counts 650,000 basic and 220,000 digital subscribers.

"It is our intention that in 2002, the Houston system will be the largest deployment of Motorola-based VOD in our industry," said Time Warner division president Ron McMillan in a statement.

Concurrent also said it's working with Motorola and its National Authorization Service to bring VOD to small and midsized operators by supplying a video server that can handle 300 streams for as few as 3,000 digital subscribers.

Motorola would authorize the VOD purchases through its NAS, which it said serves 7.5 million digital subscribers in smaller systems — or one-third of the entire U.S. digital set-top population, according to Motorola.

"Satellite competition is incredibly fierce," said Lou Mastrocola, director of product management for Motorola Broadband's DigiCable business.

Newcomer PrediWave scored a $100 million deal with China's Southeast Television Network to provide VOD-enabled set-top boxes for 200,000 subscribers in Fujian province. PrediWave allows operators to "broadcast" the most popular VOD content, thus saving on bandwidth costs.

And Cox Communications Inc. announced that it's rolling out VOD — with Motorola set-tops and Concurrent servers — under the iCONTROL moniker in Hampton Roads, Va. In Demand pay-per-view affiliates — most notably Cox, Time Warner and Comcast Corp. — are expected to use the iCONTROL promotional umbrella for their VOD services.

Industry sources said that AT&T Broadband is moving closer to a VOD launch, and that timetable could be hastened if the company is spun off as a standalone MSO.

AT&T Broadband said it placed a 200,000-unit order for Motorola's new DCT2500 box, which features a 175 MIPS central-processing unit, 64 megabytes of DRAM memory and high-resolution graphics.

INTERACTIVE ARENA

There was also plenty of interactive-television activity at the Western Show, giving a handful of die-hard vendors hope that the industry was a bit closer to launching ITV services over the next year.

Charter trumpeted the premiere of its six "I-channels" of news, weather, sports, entertainment, money and shopping information on its Glendale, Calif., system. The service, developed by Charter and Digeo Inc., is available for free to all digital subscribers.

Several weeks ago, Charter agreed to roll out Microsoft Corp.'s Microsoft TV platform on Motorola 5000-series boxes. Motorola also said it was working with America Online to integrate AOL TV into Motorola 2000- and 5000-series digital set-tops.

InformTV said it signed a deal with Blue Ridge Communications to deliver interactive sports news to 5,000 of the MSO's digital subscribers, using S-A and Pioneer New Media Technologies set-top boxes.

The first-quarter launch will give consumers the ability to access live scores, statistics and game details from the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

Sun Microsystems Inc. reported that it struck an alliance with six other companies to develop Sun platforms for the ITV, VOD and broadband network equipment provider markets. The group includes Agency.com Ltd., Kasenna Inc., N2 Broadband Inc., Strategy & Technology and VideoPropulsion Inc. to develop open systems "that do not rely on proprietary hardware and software which can lock in a customer" — a not-too-veiled reference to Microsoft.

Sun said its Sun Media Appliance Platform would standardize applications using open formats, such as ISA (Integrated Systems Architecture) and MPEG (Moving Picture Expert Group), which will allow customers to purchase equipment from multiple vendors.

For it's part, Microsoft unveiled a series of initiatives, including a home-networking deal with Pace Micro Technology plc. The companies demonstrated a wireless, in-home network using Pace's Di6000 set-top that ran Microsoft TV Advanced software connected to a Pace Gateway Expander via Ethernet.

The Pace Expander is a wireless base station that enables two-way communication from a broadband network to peripheral electronic devices.

Liberate Technologies Inc. said it would integrate Broadcom Corp.'s hardware-reference platform into its middleware, so operators can deploy hard drives within advanced set-top boxes. The company also signed an integration deal with Mixed Signals Technologies Inc.

PVR PLAYS

Personal video recorders were also an active front, as Cachevision Inc. joined the PVR sweepstakes. It showed off an alpha test of its standalone and sidecar PVR devices to cable operators.

The company's CVR-4000 — which boasts a 20-gigabyte hard drive — retails for about $225, while the CVR-4200 with a 40 gigabyte hard drive runs about $275, said vice president of marketing Stevan Eidson.

Cachevision, which has a joint venture with Thomson Multimedia and Seagate, includes an in-home PVR device along with the network and headend hardware and software to make recording service work. The company's high-end 4300 box features broadband connectivity through a Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) Ethernet port.

Cachevision is entering an increasingly crowded arena. Several weeks ago, AT&T announced it was marketing TiVo Inc.-enabled PVR boxes in San Francisco, Denver and New England.

The MSO offered customers a TiVo box for $299 and a monthly subscription fee of $9.95

Keen Personal Media, the resident hard drive manufacturer in S-A boxes, recently announced a new PVR with 100 hours of capacity.

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