United cable firms fight Sky

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The Independent Online
Four leading cable operators are in discussions to launch a common set-top box for digital cable television, and aim to enter the digital TV market by the end of next year.

The move by Telewest Communications, Nynex CableComms, Bell Cablemedia and General Cable is linked to plans by BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster, to introduce its own digital service in the final quarter of 1997.

The leading cable operators are keen to match Sky's capacity to broadcast as many as 200 channels, with extra services such as electronic banking and Internet connection.

"It is in the interests of the industry to develop this kind of technological platform on a collective basis," a spokeswoman for Bell Cablemedia said last night. "That's why we have been working closely with our colleagues."

The four operators met this week with executives from Pace Microtechnology, the set-top box manufacturer, to discuss the common standard. Pace, which this week delivered its 100,000th digital TV receiver for the global market, hopes to win a contract to make the new cable box.

Two other leading operators, Videotron and International CableTel, are not involved. CableTel, which owns transmission company NTL, is believed to be more interested in the prospects for digital terrestrial television, scheduled for launch in 1998.

The industry hopes to develop cable-exclusive services for digital customers. In addition to banking and interactive services, it hopes to develop programming to compete with the far more advanced digital plans of Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. Sky has already lined up at least two Hollywood contracts to supply films on a pay-per-view basis.