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AT&T to turn on interactive TV by year end

Ma Bell is revealing more details about its interactive TV service and says it expects to launch it later this year.

NEW ORLEANS--AT&T is revealing more details about its interactive TV service and says it expects to launch it later this year.

Ma Bell will offer some limited trials of its interactive TV service during the third quarter, with commercial availability in certain areas as early as the end of this year, according to Richard Fickle, senior vice president and program director for interactive television at the company.

AT&T's interactive TV service will not initially offer full Internet browsing functions, though it will provide email access. It will also include an address book, a calendar and "chat" capabilities in the future.

Thousands of cable industry executives, engineers, sales people and others are taking stock of the cable industry this week during the National Cable Television Association's annual convention here. If there is one development within the industry that has attendees taking notice, it's the continued design of Internet-based services that will allow consumers to interact with television via a remote control or a wireless keyboard.

Cable executives are increasingly looking toward new services to offset rising programming costs. AT&T shares have slipped recently on lower profits in its core long-distance business, making new businesses such as interactive television more important.

Industry executives and analysts believe interactive TV services will prove to be a lucrative market with high profit margins, and companies are scrambling to sign partnerships and prepare the technologies.

Software giant Microsoft made several interactive TV announcements at the show yesterday, while dozens of others made similar moves. Wink Communications and Canal+ Technologies signed a technology partnership, while set-top box maker Scientific-Atlanta and Eastman Kodak revealed plans to deliver photos on television. Even Hewlett-Packard is touting a series of printers made specifically for printing from the television. Today, National Semiconductor and Liberate Technologies teamed to deliver microchips for set-top boxes.

"There are just so many new interactive TV technology providers here," said Cynthia Brumfield, a cable industry analyst and publisher of "Broadband Intelligence," a newsletter. "Some people who remember say it reminds them of the beginning of the cable industry when there was a lot of innovation going on."

Excite@Home, the high-speed Internet access company that AT&T largely controls, built much of the interactive TV interface screen for AT&T. Excite@Home director for advanced TV products Kent Libbey hinted that announcements between AT&T and Excite@Home could come within the next few months.

AT&T, like others, hopes to differentiate its service with functions that are unavailable elsewhere. Streaming multimedia and other applications could prove more successful on large TV screens made for video, rather than on smaller computer monitors with lower resolution.

"Streaming video and audio for our interactive TV platform later this year, we think there's a big demand for that," Jim Wood, AT&T Broadband's vice president for advanced technology, said in a panel session discussion.

AT&T executives would not disclose where the company intends to first offer interactive TV trials for customers. Ma Bell frequently tests new products in its Fremont, Calif., market, though Denver has been another common test bed.