Even before it takes delivery of its first 50,000 satellite digital decoders — which will ship with built-in modems — Sky TV is fielding queries from online content providers and set-top box vendors.
Would-be partners have been knocking on its door since the pay-TV operator's decision to go digital, says Sky IT spokesman Brian Green. "They're seeing us as a very effective conduit. A big piece of pipe."
Sky recently signed an agreement with Pace Micro Technology for the UK firm to supply digital decoders for the satellite service it plans to launch later in the year. Pace is also one of four suppliers contracted by Sky's sister company, BSkyB, in the UK.
But third parties will have to wait well into next year for interactivity to be incorporated into Sky's network, and even then, says Green, the main purpose of the built-in modem will be "to help us get paid".
Sky technical officer Wayne Tibby says the "prime function of putting a modem in the box for us today is to be able to offer different ways of selling programming. To offer an effective pay-per-view service which gives the customer the maximum freedom of choice in selecting programming, you need a return path, and that's what the modem will provide.
"Obviously, it does have other downstream uses, such as Internet applications, but that won't be our first step."
Pace was also recently annointed as the European manufacturer for set-top boxes for the Microsoft-owned WebTV Networks. Tibby acknowledges that WebTV is one option for access devices, but says "a number of people have approached us, I'm not willing to reveal who at this point, but there has certainly been interest shown in the concept by a number of groups.
"There's a whole raft of issues there in terms of the Internet and how it's going to be used. WebTV is one option, but it'll be interesting to see how well it gets accepted by the public. It got off to a very good start in the US but then it slowed dramatically, so we'll be watching that with interest to see how effectively the public use that as a tool.
"There's an interesting debate going on as to whether the PC or the TV is the right place to do Internet. I think that's a very fundamental debate and there's a lot of things going on overseas which we're following with great interest, because it could influence which way we go."
Tibby says delivering to the PC rather than TV is "certainly not ruled out as an option. We could offer something very similar to what Ihug are doing with their Sky Tower-based [StarNet] service."
But, Green reiterates, that's next year's issue.
"The full effort here at the moment is going into installing a very complex conditional access system, a satellite uplink, a complete compression chain — and to make it produce a burp and a picture by whenever we've promised. If we achieve that I'll be very happy for 1998."