Acorn, BT to test set-top boxes in the UK

Five hundred consumers in Martlesham Heath, England will soon get to access interactive services via a set-top box in a network computing trial sponsored by British Telecommunications and Acorn Computer Group.

Five hundred consumers in Martlesham Heath, England will soon get to access interactive services via a set-top box in a network computing trial sponsored by British Telecommunications and Acorn Computer Group.

The set-top boxes, provided by Acorn, will allow users to surf the Internet, do online banking, download software and get real-time news and information feeds, company officials say.

BT will provide the Internet access to the boxes, but will partner with content providers, banks and organisations to offer the interactive services, says Chris Shephard, product leader for the trial at BT Labs.

"BT won't try to provide and manage content -- we're not in the content business," Shephard says. However, BT has not finalised any relationships with content providers at this time, he says.

In the beginning stages of the trial, services will be tailored to residents in the Martlesham area, including information on town events, local news and storefronts for shops, Shephard says.

Starting with 40 BT employees as participants during the first few months, the trial will be expanded to include 500 consumer participants by March 1998, officials says. All set-top boxes and services will be provided free of charge during the trial, Shephard says.

In the future, BT is not sure how its relationship with Acorn could develop, Shephard says.

If the trial is successful, two possible scenarios could happen -- either BT acts as a distributor for Acorn of the set-top boxes by providing an all-in-one service to its customers, or BT licences the technology to build the boxes itself, according to Kevin Coleman, a spokesman for Acorn.

Possible revenue for BT could come from providing Internet access and other services through partners, Shephard says. In addition, BT is always keen to increase the amount of traffic on its own telephone network, which ups its revenues overall, he says.

BT would not say how much it is planning to charge for the service if it does indeed become a viable offering for the company next year.

The Acorn set-top boxes work via a regular dial-up modem connection to the phone network. Users will input information via a keyboard or remote control.

Both BT and Acorn are hoping the trial will convince users how easy set-top boxes are to use, with a view to expanding service to other neighbouring regions in the near future, Coleman says.

BT says the scope of the trial and the market research BT is planning to undertake will give the company a real idea if its customers would want to pay for interactive services via a set-top box.

"We're not just going to connect a few boxes together and see what happens," Shephard says.

BT, based in London, is on the Web at http://www.bt.com/. Information on BT Labs can be found at http://www.labs.bt.co.uk. Acorn, based in Cambridge, England, is on the Web at http://www.acorn.co.uk/.

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