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TV on the PC Gets Real

Time Warner Cable is making the convergence of the TV and the PC real. After years of offering customers access to Web sites and short video clips, Time Warner has given 9,000 broadband subscribers in San Diego access to up to 75 cable channels—including CNN, MTV and ESPN—on their computers.

“We’re offering it for free to subscribers of our video and high-speed data service,” says Peter Stern, Time Warner Cable executive VP of product management. “We believe the PC is just another outlet for video programming in the home. If the subscriber has already paid for the service, they should be able to receive the signals on their PC.”

The Time Warner trial is expected to be watched carefully by other cable operators, none of which are involved in similar trials. Should it prove successful, TV-on-the-PC (or Mac, for that matter) will give cable operators another advantage over their fiercest foe, DBS, whose lack of broadband offerings has remained a large weakness.

The ability to receive TV signals on a computer is not entirely new. Users can open the back of their computers and add a TV-tuner card into one of the PC board slots, but it’s a task that’s daunting enough to prevent all but the most tech-savvy from attempting it. Time Warner makes it as simple as downloading a copy of RealPlayer.

Delivering Quality Signals

Stern says the biggest challenge was delivering signals with comparable quality to what subscribers get on their televisions. Enter RealNetworks, a company that is already working with Time Warner Cable on other broadband video services. Real has its Helix Web servers, which are used to help ready content for broadband distribution, and related technologies already installed in San Diego to support Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner service. The trial is an extension of that deal, with the cable content passing through the Helix system before reaching viewers.

"An Element of Security"

“Helix provides the digital-rights management,” says John Giamatteo, Real’s executive VP of worldwide business. “As the signal runs through Time Warner’s hybrid fiber/coaxial cable system, it adds an element of security.”

Making sure content cannot be copied to the PC and, in turn, redistributed illegally remains one of the TV industry’s top concerns. One aspect of the trial is that it does not use the Internet to distribute the signals, which tackles two issues: It removes the need for Time Warner Cable to renegotiate distribution rights with the channels, and it makes the content secure.

Giamatteo says that the biggest technical hurdle is shrinking the delay between when the viewer requests a channel and when he or she actually begins watching it, which is known as latency. “One of the underlying elements we have in Helix,” he says, “is having low latency while maximizing the video quality.”

Along with giving those who spend a lot of time on the computer the option of watching TV at the same time, the technology also opens the door to a host of other new applications. Every year, the National Cable Television Show invariably has some sort of high-tech, Jetson-like home exhibit where cable-TV signals are sent to flat panels built into refrigerators and other household devices. Stern says the sky’s the limit in terms of sending TV signals around the house, whether it’s to a computer or, say, a phone. “We believe we should be able to offer video to any device that is connected to the cable network,” he says. “After the TV, the PC is the logical starting point.”

Although Time Warner would not comment on customer reactions to the service, the company is already focused on improving functionality. Currently, the system can send out only one video stream, which requires about 880 kilobits per second of bandwidth. Time Warner is looking into ways to make it more efficient, such as having two households share a stream if they are watching the same channel, which would help cut the required bandwidth by up to 50%, leaving more bandwidth for other services.

With help from RealNetworks, Time Warner is looking into offering digital video recording for the computer, as well as multicasting (the ability to open up several RealPlayer windows simultaneously). Closed captioning will be featured in version 1.2 in the next couple of months, and video-on-demand is on the horizon as well.


A Unique Breakthrough"

Says Stern, “It’s purely a trial, and if it becomes deployed as an actual service, we’ll be making some significant revisions.”

Giamatteo sees opportunities beyond the cable operators. “This is a unique breakthrough, whether it’s with a cable operator or, possibly, the regional phone companies,” he says. “They can bring their whole content portfolio to the PC.”