WINfirst brings interactive TV to California capital

Nov 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

On Sept. 27, overbuilder WINfirst fired up its first interactive television system in Sacramento, Calif., with a full complement of voice, video, data and interactive services. The Denver-based company deployed an interactive video channel known as Mosaic Navigator for the first time in the United States, with technology supplied by Canal Plus Technologies in Cupertino, Calif., the North American arm of Canal Plus Group.
Frank Casazza, president and chief operating officer of WINfirst, said the Mosaic Navigator was the main driver in the company’s decision to work with Canal Plus. The product is a customer interface that features up to 12 channels on a single screen and serves as a complement to the system’s electronic program guide. Mosaic Navigator offers live simultaneous thumbnail views of different channels organized by genre. Customers can click on the channel they want to visit. “It’s an easy, intuitive way to drill down to what’s on the 240 channels,” Mr. Casazza said.
The Mosaic Navigator allows a video provider to customize the number of pages and windows per page. The channel serves as a complement to the overall system’s electronic program guide, but it does not contain any channel or programming information, said David Moss, president and CEO of Canal Plus Technologies. The Mosaic Navigator screen is what customers will see every time they turn on the TV, he said. Canal Plus also provides the conditional access system that handles encryption and the middleware that allows the interactivity, such as video-on-demand, to occur.
WINfirst has not released subscriber figures for its ITV system but will say that the number of homes signed up in Sacramento is in the “thousands.” As the first market deployment for the service, Sacramento should serve as the model for all future WINfirst launches, Mr. Casazza said.
WINfirst’s system features 240 all-digital channels, and costs for the service range from $37.90 to $139.95 per month, depending on how many additional services, such as high-speed Internet, customers elect to take. About three-quarters of the customers subscribe to more than one service, Mr. Casazza said. The system operates at 860 MHz. There are no additional fees to subscribers for the interactive services, except for the fees associated with selecting video-on-demand content.
Canal Plus’ Media Guard conditional-access system is an open platform, which permits the customer, such as WINfirst, to choose the vendors for all the different aspects of the system. Canal Plus also serves as the systems integrator for WINfirst by integrating its conditional access system with the back-office functions, such as customer service and billing. The Canal Plus system is based on DVB standards-those used in Europe for the delivery of digital TV and data.
While Canal Plus powers the VOD system, Intertainer provides the content and offers 700 hours of programming at any one time, including 250 movies, on-demand content from networks such as A&E, PBS and Discovery and on-demand music concerts and videos.
Mr. Casazza expects the next WINfirst launch will occur in the fourth quarter of 2002. “We don’t want to overdrive our headlights. We want to take the lessons in Sacramento and apply them,” he said.
The road ahead won’t be easy for WINfirst, said Michael Harris, analyst with Kinetic Strategies. “Given the current track record for overbuilders, I am highly skeptical of anyone trying to do this,” he said.