Home-shoppers soon able to cast their Net wide

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For an outlay of pounds 200 on a set-top box, consumers will not only be able to tune into dozens more channels but have access to an array of interactive services, writes Paul McCann.

Potentially the most popular service could be home-shopping. So far Sainsbury has signed up with British Interactive Broadcasting (BIB) to sell groceries off the screen and HMV to do likewise with CDs and tapes.

BIB is also in talks with clothes shops, chemists, electrical goods stores, DIY superstores and drinks companies so consumers should be able to buy most mainstream goods. Retailers using the service will be able to offer a store guide of all the different departments available, broadcast in high-quality digital images and sound overlaid with text.

Once a particular department has been accessed, viewers will be able to browse through lists or images of goods by moving an electronic arrow around the screen. To make a purchase will entail selecting a product number and an order will be made via the set-top box and a high-speed modem.

Besides shopping, viewers will be able to access individual bank accounts to check balances, transfer money or pay bills.

BIB claims that bank information and payment details for goods will all be encrypted so that no one can hack into them.

In addition, Thomas Cook has signed up to supply flight, holiday and hotel information. Travellers cheques and foreign currency will also be available electronically.

The set-top box will also link televisions to the Internet, eventually giving access to billions of pages of text information. At first this will be limited to a "best of the Internet" service.