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Thursday, August 12, 1999 Published at 20:46 GMT 21:46 UK

Business: The Company File

Cable firm offers two-way TV

The service will mean viewers can shop, bank or e-mail using their TV

The digital revolution takes another step forward in the UK on Friday as Cable & Wireless Communications begins offering customers e-mail and Internet services through their TV sets.

The BBC's Media Correspondent Nick Higham reports on Interactive Digital Services
The company has been running a month-long digital TV trial in Manchester, during which it has signed up 10,000 subscribers.

It now plans to roll out its service, including the interactive package, starting in Manchester and then expanding it in October to London and the South East, the south coast and Leeds.

While it is nearly a year since BSkyB launched the UK's first digital TV network, surveys have shown that the public still has not grasped the full implications of going digital.

Armchair shopping

One of its big selling points will be the ability to interact with TV programmes and with the Internet.

Cable & Wireless subscribers will be able to send e-mails through their TV using their remote control or a laptop keyboard.

Godfrey Sullivan of Datamonitor explains how financial services might exploit Interactive TV technology
The service will also feature a network of Websites enabling people to do their shopping or banking from their armchair or order anything from pizzas to cinema tickets.

Fifteen sites are currently available, including Tesco, Barclays Bank, British Airways and Teletext, but there will eventually be 100.

A basic CWC digital TV package including interactivity will cost £12.98 a month.

The company said it was surprised how many people signed up during the trial period - twice the number expected.

Watershed rules apply

"We don't see this as a replacement for personal computers, but something for people who don't have a PC," said CWC's marketing director, Janet Somerville.

"It provides people with a taste of the Internet without having to invest in a PC and it's also safe - there's a lot of worries about the Internet because of children finding what they shouldn't on it.
[ image: There will soon be a third choice for would-be digital customers]
There will soon be a third choice for would-be digital customers
"But this is a TV production, therefore watershed rules apply and we can't show anything that isn't family-friendly because it can be switched on at any time."

Cable is the third and last of the three delivery methods for digital TV to show its hand.

Sky launched its satellite-based system last October, and this week said it now had 1.2m subscribers.

ONdigital, which is co-owned by media companies Carlton and Granada, offers digital TV using an existing aerial. It has about 250,000 customers.

BSkyB is also planning its own interactive service called Open, a joint venture with Matsushita and HSBC bank.

The first interactive football match - Manchester United against Arsenal - is due to be shown on Sky Sports Extra on 22 August.

Digital viewers will be able to use their remote controls to choose camera angles or call up instant replays.

Cable confident of success

Though late into the fray, the cable industry believes that it is best equipped to capitalise on the digital revolution.

It argues that the UK will not be won over solely by the prospect of multi-channel TV. It says its fibreoptic cables are the best conduit for the interactive and Internet services which could persuade customers.

There are currently 3m cable subscribers in the UK, compared with 4m who have Sky satellites.

Cable bosses think they are well placed to work towards the 60% penetration which cable enjoys in the US.

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