Verizon's TV dreams

Company launches its TV service to better compete with cable operators--what else is up its sleeve?

reporter's notebookWALTHAM, Mass.--Who would have ever thought that a phone company would be providing TV service?

Not me, but that's exactly what's happening in select parts of the country where Verizon Communications, one of the four remaining offspring of the Ma Bell phone companies, is now offering its new Fios TV service to combat the growing competitive threat of cable companies.

A visit to Verizon's main research and testing facility here offers a glimpse at how the phone giant sees the future of television. Tucked away in the woods off Interstate 95 in suburban Boston is a mock-up of a house where new features and applications for Verizon's Fios TV service are tested by engineers and shared with select groups of customers.

Fios TV runs over a new fiber-optic network that Verizon is building throughout its territory. Designed to be connected directly to people's homes, the service launched last month in Keller, Texas, and it's expected to be in at least three other cities by the end of the year, with more to follow in 2006.

An IP revolution
Because Verizon is initially using the same broadcast technology used by cable and satellite providers, Fios TV doesn't look much different from what's in the market today. But executives say this is just the beginning. With nearly limitless capacity on the network provided by the new fiber-optic infrastructure, Verizon will be able to offer more interactive features using the Internet Protocol. Some programming, such as the video-on-demand service, is already IP-enabled in the current version of the service. More IP-based services will be added in the future.

"IP is definitely the future, and once the network is in place it will allow us to do all sorts of things," said Bill Garrett, director of broadband services for Verizon. "Right now, we're at the point where we're still trying to figure out what people want. We wanted to give people a service they were comfortable with and could use."

The main benefit of IP is that it will allow TV viewers to interact with television programming in ways they've never been able to before. Not only does this mean allowing people to watch what they want when they want, but it also means enabling them to access more and different kinds of content while they're watching TV.

The look of Fios TV

SBC Communications, which is running fiber only to the curb and not directly to homes, plans to go straight for IP-based TV when it launches its "U-Verse" service next year. SBC is using software developed by Microsoft. Carriers in other parts of the world, such as Bell Canada, Swisscom and Telecom Italia, also have been using Microsoft technology to build their IP TV networks. Verizon used Microsoft middleware to develop its program guide.

One of the new services currently being tested here is an interactive fantasy sports application that lets viewers compare statistics and keep track of points on their TVs while they're watching games. In designing the new service, Verizon has been careful not to overwhelm viewers with too much scrolling, button-clicking and reading on their screens.

"The first thing we learned from people we brought in here

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