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Firms team for fast set-top access

WorldGate Communications and cable firm Charter Communications will offer high-speed Net service over cable TV lines, using set-top boxes.

Start-up WorldGate Communications has teamed with cable firm Charter Communications to provide high-speed Internet service over regular cable TV lines.

Charter, a privately held company with 1.1 million subscribers, will first roll the service out in St. Louis using a scheme in which specially equipped cable TV set-top boxes with WorldGate's technology will deliver Web and email access via servers located at the cable operator's facility. Charter expects the service to be available to 200,000 households by the end of the year.

A number of cable companies--such as Tele-Communications Incorporated--also are considering rolling out Internet-based services by using next-generation digital set-top boxes with hopped-up processing power to offer new capabilities to televisions. Companies are particularly interested in linking television programming and Web content to better track advertising results--and hopefully increase ad revenues. But digital set-top boxes are not yet widely available and require costly cable plant upgrades to implement service.

By using less expensive "advanced" analog set-top boxes, Charter will be able to roll out service more quickly and cheaply than if it used digital set-top boxes. The company expects to bring Internet services to users at a cost of $15.95 per month for unlimited Internet access, six email addresses, and a wireless keyboard.

Set-top boxes using WorldGate technology 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 are sent through cable TV lines to "head-end" servers that handle their processing. The servers 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 by using space normally reserved for a channel of programming--much faster than conventional 56-kbps modems using analog phone lines.

If eventually deployed through enough cable operators, WorldGate's technology could pose a challenge to Microsoft's WebTV devices, which rely on the installation of a separate Internet access device and the use of a phone line.