Outlook: Confusion in a black box

SIR Peter Bonfield, British Telecom's silver-haired boss, was keeping a straight face yesterday, but he was probably doing his best not to burst out laughing. News that the European Commission has waved through BT's involvement in British Interactive Broadcasting, the venture that is planning to bring home shopping and banking to your TV screen, amounts to a victory for big business over Brussels' normally hard-nosed trust-busters.

Of course Karel van Miert, the Commission's competition supremo, had extracted a few face-saving concessions. After a year's hard bargaining, BT has solemnly promised to allow other companies to offer services through the black boxes it aims to put on every TV set in the country. It will also sell its two remaining cable franchises. Big deal. The UK's own watchdog, Oftel, has already announced plans to ensure equal access to interactive TV. And if Mr van Miert really thinks the loss of a few cable TV customers in Westminster and Milton Keynes is going to stop BT, then he really hasn't understood the issue at all.

None of this means that BiB is assured of success, however. The joint venture is effectively taking a punt on the belief that Britain's couch potatoes will want to order a pizza or select a PEP from the comfort of their armchairs. And it is willing to spend hundreds of millions subsidising the cost of set-top boxes to find out.

The problem is that, come the autumn, potential customers are going to be faced with such a bewildering choice of boxes that they may end up not buying anything at all. Apart from the BiB box, which will also offer access to Sky's 200-channel digital satellite TV service, they will also be able to buy a similar box from BDB, the Carlton-Granada joint venture which is launching a cheaper 30-channel service at the same time. In theory, the two boxes should be interchangeable so that customers don't have to fret about which one they buy. Karel van Miert looked at the industry for a year and still doesn't understand it. What chance does that give the average TV viewer?

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