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Start-up technology rivals WebTV

A new technology that harnesses analog cable systems could mean faster Internet access via TV sets, though there are some skeptics.

A new technology that harnesses analog cable systems could mean faster Internet access via TV sets, at a comparatively low price, although some observers are casting doubt on the viability of the technology.

Worldgate Communications, a Pennsylvania startup, has developed a scheme in which specially equipped cable TV boxes deliver the Web and email via servers located at the cable operator's facility.

Set-top boxes using Worldgate technology would enable users to choose a predetermined cable channel and begin surfing the Web or reading and sending email using a remote control or a wireless keyboard.

Commands would be sent through cable tv lines to "head-end" servers that would handle the processing remotely. The servers would also provide storage of email, user preferences, and possibly downloaded materials.

Accessing the Internet through analog cable lines would enable a transfer rate of 192 kbps, seven times faster than a conventional 28.8-kbps modem using analog phone lines.

In a sense, the technology operates like a network computer, and because the converter box would not require complicated configuration or maintenance, Worldgate estimates the service would cost consumers less than $12 monthly--perhaps as little as $5--at the discretion of the cable operator.

The Worldgate scheme has attracted a number of large backers, including Scientific-Atlanta, Citicorp, Motorola, and NextLevel Systems.

But the implementation could be problematic because the technology lacks the sophistication to deliver Web content and because cable operators may balk at providing the service, according to some observers.

Nonetheless, the apparently low-cost scheme has also garnered attention as a rival to Microsoft's (MSFT) WebTV. WebTV requires the user to buy a special $200 set-top device and pay a $20 monthly fee. Microsoft's set-top device processes in conjunction with the user's TV, via phone lines.

Worldgate expects to begin offering its Worldgate Service in the next few weeks.

Reuters contributed to this story.