Comcast plans link to Internet Interactive service will let viewers use TV like a computer; Spring start planned; Baltimore, Howard counties to be among first to test new device


Baltimore and Howard counties will be among the first areas in the country to receive devices that will allow users to surf the Internet, shop or play interactive games on their television sets.

The maker of the set-top devices, Scientific-Atlanta Inc., said yesterday that Comcast Cable Communications Inc. has selected the two counties for its first trials of the device, which will begin in the spring.

Cable and computer firms have been seeking ways to merge the capability of the computer and the convenience of television. Scientific-Atlanta and Comcast believe the new set-top, known as the Explorer 2000, represents an important advance in that direction.

"What makes it unique is its interactivity, its two-way capability," Bill Brobst, a spokesman for Scientific-Atlanta, said. "You will have interactive applications through your set-top box. You could do shopping. You could do games. That could expand to Internet access, browsing and e-mail."

Other possible applications of the device include home banking and video-on-demand.

Brobst said no cable company in the country offers set-top boxes with the capacity for two-way communication.

Explorer 2000 uses cable's high-capacity lines, which allow it to offer better interactivity and picture quality than television-based Internet services such as WebTV, which use lower-capacity telephone lines.

Comcast spokesman David Nevins said the company chose the Baltimore region for the trials because of the area's economic health and fiber-optic capacity.

"It's an area that's interested in additional cable-TV services," he said.

Comcast's Baltimore-area market, which has just over 300,000 subscribers, includes Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.

Nevins said Baltimore and Howard will see the new set-tops first because the fiber-optic networks there are at an especially advanced stage.

"We view this very much as the beginning of a test," he said. "As the trials prove successful, we will slowly roll out a more widespread implementation. The company is very committed to using digital set-top boxes in the field."

He said the exact location, size and cost of the trial run have yet to be determined.

How much, if anything, customers would have to pay for the set-tops, which are larger than a cable-TVv box and smaller than a VCR, is "an open question at this time," Nevins said.

Comcast Communications Inc., a division of Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., has 700 employees in Maryland, 300 of whom work at the company's regional headquarters in White Marsh.

Nevins said the Eastern Shore cable services Comcast acquired earlier this month from Marcus Cable Co. L. P. would not be involved in the initial trials of the set-tops.

Scientific-Atlanta, a Norcross, Ga.-based telecommunications services company, is also providing the set-tops to Time Warner Cable, which is planning to introduce them at about the same time as Comcast.

Time Warner Cable would not disclose which of its markets would receive the first copies of the Explorer 2000.

Mike Luftman, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable in Stamford, Conn., called the Explorer 2000 "a second-generation box."

"Because it has the capability to be fully interactive, I think it is a breakthrough product," he said. "We think there is going to be a demand for television Internet services."

Scientific-Atlanta's announcement was made at the California Cable Television Association's Western Show in Anaheim, Calif., a major cable industry gathering. Comcast Corp.'s stock closed yesterday at $29.375, up 12.5 cents on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Scientific-Atlanta's stock fell 6.25 cents on the New York Stock Exchange, closing at $19.625.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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