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Bell Atlantic delays test of video services over phone lines


In another setback for its plans to provide television programming to the home over its lines, Bell Atlantic Corp. has postponed a trial intended to pave the way for a commercial rollout of video services in Dover Township, N.J.

The 200-home volunteer trial, which had been scheduled to begin last month, has instead been delayed until an unspecified date later this year, Bell Atlantic spokesman Harry Mitchell confirmed yesterday.

"We just weren't sure we had a high-quality service to roll out," said Mr. Mitchell, who attributed the delay to "software glitches."

Mitchell reiterated Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic's commitment to the project, which is eventually supposed to reach 38,000 homes in Dover Township, including the town of Toms River.

"We're moving forward," Mr. Mitchell said. "We already have a million feet of fiber-optic cable in place."

The postponement is another in a series of reverses for Bell Atlantic's ambitious plans to invade the turf of the cable television and video rental industries. As recently as June 1994, company executives were talking about rolling out advanced, interactive "video dial tone" service in parts of Baltimore as early as late this year. Now that deployment appears to be several years down the road.

In May, Bell Atlantic withdrew a sweeping application to the Federal Communications Commission to build video systems in six large markets, including Baltimore. The company said it had decided to abandon the original architecture it proposed and would instead use a "switched digital video" system such as the one being deployed in Dover Township. The company said at the time that the switch would delay deployment by no more than a year.

While Bell Atlantic widely publicized its original plans for Dover Township, the company did not put out a press release when it postponed them last month, Mr. Mitchell said. The news of the delay was reported in IFA Hotline, a fax publication of the Interactive Television Association.

News of the delay was greeted with derision by a spokesman for the cable television industry.

"None of this comes as any surprise to me. I just sit back and giggle," said Stephen Effros, president of the Cable Telecommunications Association.

"They're finding that they can't make these broad technological claims that they're going to build the biggest and the best and snap their fingers and have it done next week," Mr. Effros added. "They're finding it isn't as easy or cheap as they thought."

Tom Brennan, senior consultant with TeleChoice Inc. in Verona, N.J., said Bell Atlantic is running into problems with its servers, the high-capacity computers that are supposed to store and deliver the programs to customers.

He said Bell Atlantic is not alone in falling short of its optimistic technological predictions.

"Across the board, everyone that's trying this is running into the same set of problems," Mr. Brennan said.

"Video on demand," the dial-up service Bell Atlantic has touted as the product that will drive interactive television, is probably 5 to 10 years away from being a mass-market product, Mr. Brennan said.

Larry Plumb, a spokesman for the phone company's Bell Atlantic Video Services subsidiary, said a separate market trial in Northern Virginia was going well, with 1,000 paying customers receiving service.

"The people that are on, their buy rates are exceeding our business case by significant amounts," he said. "Early indications are very encouraging. The jury's still out in terms of the ultimate conclusions we draw."

The Northern Virginia trial uses a less ambitious, less interactive technology that delivers video over ordinary copper phone lines. Mr. Plumb said the fully digital technology being used in New Jersey has proven to be "more difficult than we anticipated to roll out."

Mr. Plumb said Bell Atlantic's first challenge to cable television in its largest markets is likely to come through another technology called "wireless cable." He said the company plans to launch its first trial of that digital service in late 1996 or early 1997.

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