CWC launches digital attack

CABLE & WIRELESS Communications, Britain's largest cable system operator, today raised the stakes in the battle for digital television subscribers by launching a combination telephone, TV and on-line service priced from pounds 9.98 per month.

That undercuts BSkyB's entry level digital package at pounds 15.92, including an obligatory extra line rental from British Telecom at pounds 8.92 per month. Last month, BSkyB and ONdigital began giving away set-top boxes, though viewers must subscribe for 12 months.

CWC will launch the service - which will include 130 channels - in Manchester from July. Franchise areas in London will come on-stream in the autumn with other areas being added early in 2000.

Access to e-mail on TV and other interactive services is to begin in October. The cable operator also said it will spend an additional pounds 60m on marketing and customer service. "We think we have a leadership position in cable," said Greg Clarke, chief executive.

CWC's digital set-top boxes, which include cable modems and are the prototype for Telewest's system launching in October, won't immediately offer high speed connectivity between PCs and the Net. CWC said the immediate goal is to bring selected web site access and e-mail to TV viewers.

They were also cautious about quickly reversing BSkyB's early lead. The satellite broadcaster, which has attracted more than 800,000 digital customers, began digital service in October. Mr Clarke said it would "take a couple of years" to catch up to BSkyB. "It's like the tortoise and the hare," he added.

CWC is investing pounds 550m over three years to upgrade its cable network for digital and expects to have 200,000 digital subscribers by March.