First Media adds interactivity to local cable services

Telecom's cable subsidiary First Media is upgrading its set-top boxes to offer customers a slew of new interactive services. Over the next few months it will replace existing devices with advanced analogue set-top boxes by US-based General Instruments. First Media group manager Simon Potkins says the new set-top boxes will be the last analogue devices before going completely digital. Customers will be able to browse the Web on TV by March next year.

Telecom’s cable subsidiary First Media is upgrading its set-top boxes to offer customers a slew of new interactive services.

Over the next few months it will replace existing devices with advanced analogue set-top boxes by US-based General Instruments.

First Media group manager Simon Potkins says the new set-top boxes will be the last analogue devices before going completely digital.

“We’re going with advanced analogue purely because of economics at this stage. It would be nice to have all digital but we have to make some money out of it. This enables us to deliver the type of services that will prevail in the digital world. At the end of the day you sell services, not digital or analogue.”

The new boxes will have a feature enhancement module (FEM) with a processor, around 256Kb of RAM and flash memory, which will run interactive applications and allow data to be downloaded from the cable company.

“We can then start overlaying services,” says Potkin. “The current boxes are really just a tuner.”

The first service, which will be free and slated for October, is an interactive programme guide. First Media is also working on other interactive services such as information on demand.

“Also sitting in the FEM, will be a WINK engine which runs interactive programs,” says Potkins. “It’s a development language a bit like Java but used for small devices such as set-top boxes.

“This will enable people to interact with TV programmes. For example, they could be watching a cooking programme and an icon will appear. If they click on it, the system will download the recipes.

“Another application could be advertising. An advertisement for a car could be running and you could order more information about it.” Potkin says an initial service may be CD purchasing. “That’s one we’re really having a look at.”

The third service is Web browsing. First Media is working with US-based World-Gate, which has a set-top box-optimised browser based on Spry’s Mosaic. World-Gate representatives are due in the country next week to work with First Media on the system. “It will fill a gap by letting people who don’t have a PC use the Web and email in particular.”

Potkin says the interactive and Web browsing services will probably be rolled out around March-April next year, which is the end of First Media’s financial year. He says the company is still working on a business model for charging.

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