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Toshiba gets into cable business

The electronics giant previews set-tops and cable modems at the Western Show, heralding new moves into the home market.

    Toshiba Multimedia Systems Division previewed digital set-top boxes and cable modems as part of a push for recognition from cable industry executives crowding the floors of the Western Cable Show in Anaheim, California.

    Toshiba is a relative newcomer to the cable industry, having started supplying cable modems last year for use with Time Warner's Road Runner high-speed Internet service.

    But beyond the cable modem lies next-generation set-top boxes with more computer-like features, opening up an industry once dominated by a few suppliers to competition more along the lines of the PC industry. The prize: some 65 million households with old-style cable converter boxes, most of which are due to be upgraded to next-generation digital set-top boxes.

    At the Western Show, Toshiba for the first time publicly demonstrated its digital set-top box, code-named Pegasus. Toshiba says that its device initially offers services such as an electronic programming guide and later will offer the ability to browse Internet sites.

    Toshiba's T-3000 set-top box uses a MicroSparc 32-bit RISC processor--based on Sun Microsystems Sparc architecture--a separate graphics accelerator chip, and the PowerTV operating system. The system also includes a tuner and MPEG-2 video playback chip, which will allow users to receive the high-quality digital TV signals that are expected to be broadcast starting in 1998. The T-3000 itself is expected to be used in trial deployments starting next year.

    At the show, Toshiba also demonstrated its cable modems and server equipment for a cable company's main office, which Toshiba says are interoperable with other cable modems built around the Multimedia Cable Network System Partners (MCNS) specification. MCNS is an industry trade group.

    CableLabs, a research and development consortium of cable television system operators, confirms Toshiba's claims. CableLabs has already tested Toshiba equipment with Harmonic Lightwaves (HLIT) equipment and concluded the products work together.

    The test results are important because the cable industry is counting on an industry standard cable modem and set-top box specification to spark rapid deployment of high-speed Web cable access and digital TV.

    With interoperable equipment, cable companies would no longer need to lease equipment to consumers--the equipment could be sold at retail outlets. And that would leave a lot of room for consumer electronics and computer companies to compete for sales.

    "The cable industry is going through a transition. There is a lot of familiarity with certain types of suppliers, but because of the move to digital technologies and with the OpenCable architecture, we see a lot of other vendors in this [field]," said Sam Nalbone, vice president and general manager for Toshiba MSD.

    Toshiba's cable modems will be available in the second quarter of 1998 in volume quantities for an estimated $315 per unit.