As anyone who's been waiting and waiting--and waiting--for two-way CableCard can tell you, the cable industry has a lot to learn about making its products play nice with today's HDTVs, computers, and other digital gadgets. From the lack of a universal EPG in CableCard-equipped gear to the lack of just about any set-top box for sale in stores--Sony's pricey, year-old DHG series notwithstanding--cable does its best to chain you to renting a box. And compared to DVRs such as TiVo, cable boxes are slow, limited, and buggy, although they do have their charms.
Fios, Verizon's high-speed all-digital network that's being rolled out in select parts of the country, promises to compete against cable and satellite in the digital-TV arena. Citizens of a few lucky towns can already subscribe to Fios TV, which offers more channels--including 20 HDTV networks--than cable for less money. AT&T and BellSouth are working on similar IP networks, and last week, the three telecommunications companies, along with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), announced guidelines designed to ensure that you can actually buy devices that attach to their networks in stores. As stage one in product development, the group agreed to a list of lofty-sounding principles that don't read anything like the cable TV we know today, including nationwide compatibility, open standards, and reasonable terms of service for consumers.
The agreement is good news, mostly because it signals the start of more competition for the cable industry, which currently enjoys a near-monopoly on "triple-play"--digital TV, VoIP phone, and Internet--service packages. It also opens the door to more product possibilities, such as real EPG-equipped HD DVRs with HD-DVD or Blu-ray recording built in; network-ready HDTVs that can serve up on-demand TV shows, movies, and Web pages without a box; or PCs that can display and record HDTV channels from a wired or wireless IP video network connection. Sure, products such as this are a couple of years off, at best, but compared to the rate of cable's innovation, that's light speed.
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