I've written tutorial stories about the technology, commentaries about its possible use as an adjunct to cable TV (before that idea was prohibited by FCC mandate) and covered new product releases - all in an effort to educate CED readers about what was happening with that alternative video medium.

The fact of the matter is, however, that I was never really impressed with the technology. Yes, it worked. But it needed a large, unsightly antenna. It was hamstrung with limited bandwidth. It was hampered by limited access to programming sources. And it had a negative perception in the marketplace, which perhaps manifested itself from the hucksters who dominated the industry in the early days.

All of those drawbacks went away when I recently went out to see Pacific Bell Video Services ' digital MMDS demonstration, and after I read accounts of CAI Wireless' demo of high-speed Internet access in Rochester. With new technology and the resources only a telco can provide, wireless cable is growing up and getting strong. Via digital compression, PacBell can offer at least 120 channels of video programming, including near-video-on-demand. Gone are the unsightly antennas. Shadow areas (those pockets where the line-of-sight signal can't be seen) will be reduced to just 15 percent of the Los Angeles area, according to engineers.

And get this: PacBell will be able to offer digital TV signals to 4 million households with a single $20 million hardware investment. Sure, it cost additional money to buy the frequency licenses and will cost more for the subscriber gear (but that's an incremental expenditure based on penetration levels), but show me another infrastructure you can put in place for $5 a house without launching a satellite.

Throughout its L.A. base of operations, PacBell has gone top-drawer: high-quality headend components, sufficient engineering support and an aggressive marketing team are all assigned to the project. The headend facility will be fully redundant after it's tied via fiber into a similar facility that's under construction in the Bay Area. With those two facilities, PacBell can provide all the satellite programming services and insert local broadcast signals to emulate a cable system.

Finally, after years of promises, there will truly be multichannel video competition, complete with local video content - probably by early next year.

That should make the local cable operators — of which there are several — nervous. By choosing Los Angeles to attack first, PacBell picked on a large, urban area that is not dominated by a single carrier, yet which boasts a sophisticated video subscriber base. Cable operators throughout California shouldn't downplay what PacBell is doing: MMDS has matured and is yet another formidable competitor for the video entertainment dollar. Burying your head in the sand and giving the technology only passing attention could be a fatal error.

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