500 channels and nothing on

January 20, 1993

A new video technology on the horizon promises to revolutionize the cable television industry, opening the door to cable systems capable of carrying up to 500 separate channels.

Cable companies hope to vastly expand the number of different programs their customers can receive through a technique called digital compression, which increases the available number of channels by squeezing more information through the same conduit.

The technology involves transforming the analog signal of pulsating electronic wave forms on which conventional TV XTC pictures are transmitted into a stream of digital ones and zeros that can be read by a computer. The computer then discards repetitive parts of the image, such as static backgrounds, leaving room for more images to be crammed onto the same channel.

The amount of compression possible depends on how much movement is in the image. A channel carrying movies, for example, can be split about 12 times over; a channel carrying sports, which has more movement, can be split about eight times. Since the computer only "reads" the digits representing the image, and not distortions caused by bad weather or electronic interference, compression actually results in clearer pictures.

Tele-Communications Inc., the country's largest cable company, says it plans to test the concept of digital compression technology in selected markets around the country by early 1994; by 1995 it hopes to have the technology in the first million homes of the 10 million households its systems reach. Other cable companies are likely to follow suit.

Whether consumers, already annoyed by rising cable fees, will respond favorably is another matter. Just trying to figure out what's on 500 channels could be daunting -- though cable companies promise new electronic listings and improved remote controls to aid inveterate zappers.

Another innovation likely will be pay-per-view movies starting continuously every 15 minutes in contrast to every two hours as at present. The expanded systems would also have plenty of free channels for interactive and computer services, multiple versions of such networks as HBO and MTV, sports of every kind and an endless selection of niche channels.

Still, subscribers already complain they can't find anything worth watching on the 60 or so channels that already are available. It won't matter much that technology can now bring 500 or even 1,500 channels into the home if consumers judge that there's still nothing on.

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