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Cable goods on display

At cable TV's Western Show, companies are announcing new technologies they promise will move the cable modem and set-top box industry forward.

Taking advantage of an Anaheim, California, gathering of cable and software representatives, companies are announcing new technologies they promise will move the cable modem and set-top box industry forward.

Among the wares being peddled at this week's cable industry Western Show are speedy "plug-and-play" cable modems, set-top boxes that add interactive features to cable TV, and hardware for cable service providers.

Milpitas, California-based Com21 is the most recent company to throw its hat into the cable modem ring, announcing today it will release a suite of products based on the high-speed Internet access technology. Toshiba Multimedia Systems Division and Hayes Microcomputer have also announced they plan to build such modems, which plug into home cable and will offer downloading speeds that are hundreds of times faster than phone modems.

Com21 promises that its suite will allow end users to employ cable modems without the burden of installing an Ethernet network card into a PC. Its Comport cable modem can be configured to use a high-speed upstream (from the user to the cable service provider) or a dial-up upstream connection. The dial-up is slower but is a more practical solution for now since many cable companies cannot yet handle high-speed upstream data. All downstream data--from the service provider to the user--is sent at high transfer rates, typically around 30 megabits per second (mbps).

Meanwhile, electronics giant Motorola announced new hardware that will allow its existing cable modems to operate using a specification that is well on its way to becoming a standard. The Multimedia Cable Network Systems (MCNS) protocol has the potential to bring down prices by giving cable companies many more choices of modem suppliers. The technology eventually could allow end users to purchase modems from stores, the same way phone modems are bought now.

Motorola's new router, which regulates the flow of data from the service provider to end users, allows those currently using the company's cable modems to switch over to the MCNS specification without an interruption in service. The router will support a rich set of features for MCNS modems, including Internet Protocol (IP) multicast, which allows audio and video transmission over the Net to different locations . The modem router can achieve data speeds of 36 mbps downstream, and up to 10 mbps upstream.

But as two separate announcements concerning cable television devices make clear, modems are by no means the only products companies are pushing at the cable show, which continues through Friday.

In the first, nCube and Next Level Systems says they will offer "near video-on-demand" services through a set-top device similar to those leased by cable TV subscribers. The device will allow viewers to rent and view videos using a standard cable hookup.

In the second, Oracle subsidiary Network Computer Incorporated and set-top manufacturer Scientific Atlanta announce a device that will bring email, Web browsing, and other interactive features to cable TV services. (See related story)