Phoneline technology to step up digital revolution

Thanks to ADSL, truly interactive TV is now a reality. Its ability to converge TV, phone and PC usage stands to kick-start the real digital revolution, says Torin Douglas

It may not be the “killer” application that will turn the nation onto interactive TV, but it’s certainly the most fun. Viewers of NTL’s TV-Internet service can now hurl custard pies at anyone on the screen, simply by pointing their remote control, aiming and firing. A wonderfully satisfying white goo spreads all over the person’s head – be they politician, news reader or film star.

The fact that you can also watch programmes and surf the Internet at the same time – e-mailing your friends while not missing the latest twist in Eastenders – may be regarded as a mere bonus.

Suddenly, the long-awaited “convergence” of television, telecommunications and computers has really arrived. Not just in pilot schemes in laboratories or a few dozen hand-picked homes, but in the real world.

You can now get e-mail and Internet on the TV screen; call up 750 movies or a selection of news and drama programmes, whenever you choose, day or night; sign up for high-speed Internet access, bringing watchable TV footage to the computer screen; and interact with a programme or commercial, adding text and information, without leaving the TV channel.

These developments are made possible by the arrival of true “broadband” capability, not just through one or other of the three competing forms of digital TV – satellite, terrestrial and cable – but down the ordinary telephone line too, thanks to a technology developed by BT, called ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line).

The question now is whether all these new services and applications will help Sky’s cable, terrestrial and video-on-demand rivals claw back its huge digital lead. Sky has already signed up 3.4 million digital customers, while its nearest rival ONdigital has just 673,000 and Telewest about 150,000. Yet, while Sky’s range of programmes is unrivalled and its free-dish-and-box strategy working well, its interactive progress is patchy.

I’m a big fan of Sky Sports Active, its first interactive programme service, which brings together pictures and text to give a choice of camera angles, match highlights, and facts and figures. I await its interactive news service with interest. And like most of Sky Digital’s subscribers, I’ve also tried the services provided by its interactive partner, Open – such as home shopping and banking, and TV e-mail.

But though Open has achieved impressive response rates, the fact that you have to leave the TV channel (through a telephone link) to go interactive is frustrating and limiting.

And having seen Carlton Active’s new interactive service on ONdigital I think Carlton has much greater potential.

The ability for viewers to keep the TV picture in a corner of the screen while they go interactive could prove crucial in future, as the public becomes more discerning about the digital interactive services on offer. Viewers of Carlton Food Network and Carlton Cinema can now access on-screen information about programmes and commercials, with the opportunity to win prizes such as a £3,000 family holiday. It gives TV a chance to win advertising from other markets, such as classified, sales promotion and direct mail.

Now of course that’s of greater interest to advertisers than viewers, who may be more attracted by the chance to access recipes and information about Morocco during Antony Worrall Thompson’s series Antony’s Morocco, or by information on films (and the chance to vote for their favourites) on Carlton Cinema.

ONdigital is also offering e-mail and pay-per-view movies and later this year will introduce full Internet access. Meanwhile Telewest and CWC have been supplying interactive TV to many cable customers since last year and NTL (which is about to absorb CWC when its takeover takes effect in the next few days) is launching two services – TV-Internet and digital TV.

NTL chief executive Barclay Knapp has admitted the company allowed its rivals to get ahead in the race to launch digital TV, but says that’s because its product was technologically more ambitious than theirs. And he insists there is plenty of time, comparing it not with a boxing match, in which you have to knock out your opponent, but with a golf match. “We’re only on the third or fourth hole,” he says.

I haven’t yet seen NTL’s digital TV offering, which is on trial in parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and will go national this autumn. But I have been shown the latest version of its TV-Internet service, and I was impressed – and not just by the custard pies. NTL has developed its own pages and sections, tailor-made for the TV screen, as well as giving full Internet access – all through the ordinary telephone line. And you can see these pages without leaving the TV programme.

But where it gets confusing for the customer is that you can now get high-speed Internet access and video-on-demand through an ordinary telephone line too, provided it has been souped-up through ADSL.

BT is launching “BT Openworld”, a broadband portal and high-speed Internet service in July. A video-on-demand company Video Networks is already using ADSL to send high-quality video down BT lines to 1,500 subscribers in North London. Customers for its Home Choice service can choose from 750 different films, or BBC dramas such as Pride & Prejudice, or that day’s BBC news bulletins, at any time of day or night. Soon the service will be available London-wide, and it could go national after that.

ADSL is a significant rival to cable – but the cable companies remain bullish, saying they can also use ADSL to spread their business beyond their cable franchise areas. Suddenly, it seems, the real digital revolution is underway.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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