Cable TV killer or technological boondoggle? That's the question surrounding Bell Canada Enterprises' (BCE) ComboBox set-top box: one BCE hopes will kick the stuffing out of its cable TV competition.

Announced during a Toronto press conference in February, the ComboBox will combine Bell ExpressVu DTH satellite TV, Sympatico's high-speed DSL Internet access and the functions of a hard disk-based Personal Video Recorder (PVR) into a single set-top box. BCE is developing it in league with Echostar and Nexland. Echostar supplies satellite TV receivers to Bell ExpressVu, while Nexland supplies Internet sharing hardware to Sympatico's business clients. Estimated retail price: about $333 U.S., with the cost to be somehow split between BCE and its customers.

With the ComboBox, BCE subscribers will be able to watch satellite TV, surf the Web, and manipulate video on their home TVs. But that's not all. "With Bell Globemedia, we have the video, Internet and information resources to support the creation of new interactive content especially for the Canadian market," said BCE Chair and CEO Jean Monty during the press conference. He's not kidding: BCE Globemedia includes recently-acquired CTV, Canada's largest private TV network, and content from Canada's national newspaper, The Globe & Mail.

BCE's ComboBox is aimed squarely at Canada's cable TV industry. Small wonder: Canadian MSOs like Shaw and Rogers have been offering combined digital cable TV/high-speed cable access for a few years now.

As a result, the cable TV industry has managed to position itself as the source for integrated TV/Internet services, much to BCE's chagrin. Clearly, ComboBox is Ma Bell's attempt to fight back.

By choosing the ComboBox delivery system, BCE has abandoned its attempt to deliver video over phone lines. In fact, the company has "cancelled all of their trials over any other technology," says Toronto-based telecom analyst Ian Angus. This includes testing iMagicTV, the ADSL video-over-copper solution developed by eastern Canadian telco Aliant Telecom.

So why did BCE decide to combine DTH and DSL at the user end, rather than within its own network? Cost, answers Tom Hope, chief technology officer at BCE subsidiary Bell Canada.

"When we reviewed the cost implications of the two strategies, it became apparent that the ComboBox was a very attractive option."

In plain English, it's cheaper for BCE to build the ComboBox, which works with the telco's existing DTH/DSL services, rather than overhaul its network to add video.

As well, Bell ExpressVu already has about 725,000 subscribers, while Sympatico High Speed has about 300,000. It doesn't make sense to try to sell these groups on an entirely new product, when the ComboBox can be marketed to both as just a service enhancement.

However, there are other reasons why the ComboBox makes sense to BCE.

Take the unit's built-in hard drive, which Hope expects to hold about 40 gigabytes of data. With this amount of storage available in each subscriber's home, "the ComboBox solves the problem of how to provide video-on-demand," he says. "Everybody has been thinking about network storage and then immediate delivery through a transport network: the ComboBox allows you to download the top six movies [directly to the box via satellite], and they sit there [in the set-top's hard drive], encrypted and secure. Then, if the user wants to watch them, they play immediately and with full VCR functionality."

Then there's the network-clogging nightmare of video streaming. By integrating DTH and DSL delivery at the user end, BCE can deliver popular Webcasts directly by satellite. No more dropouts while Canadians log onto the latest Victoria's Secret fashion show: BCE's DSL network can be left unclogged, while users will get the instant delivery they demand.

But that's not all: popular Web sites could be downloaded directly to the ComboBox's hard drive via satellite, caching them there to further relieve network congestion. This combination of DTH and DSL could allow BCE to handle Internet demand surges easily; something that the Canadian cable TV industry has had well-documented problems with.

If this isn't enough, the ComboBox could also serve as a hub for home-based networks. Think of it: the subscriber's PCs could all be ported to the ComboBox by Ethernet, telephone line, or wireless connections. Also, as more IP-based appliances hit the market–like the Sonicbox Internet Radio (no relation), which transmits Web radio stations wirelessly to home stereo receivers–the ComboBox could connect them to the world.

With all these options, it's not surprising Tom Hope doesn't see the ComboBox as just a set-top box. Instead, it's "the beginning of what I would call 'an entertainment server'," he says.

So what do the critics think? Telecom analyst Angus gives ComboBox two thumbs up, primarily because its video component is based on "a proven technology"–namely, DTH. However, the Canadian Cable Television Association (CCTA) isn't so effusive.

"I don't think that there's anything here that's unique to where the cable set-top boxes are going," comments Michael Hennessy, the CCTA's senior vice president of policy and planning. The reason: the cable TV industry is also intending to slap a high-speed modem on the back of its set-tops, he says. In addition, "Everybody's planning on putting PVR functionality into their box."

Time will tell if Canadian MSOs can match the ComboBox's features and its rollout schedule: a trial run this fall, with rollout slated for 2002. We'll also have to wait to see if BCE's ComboBox scoops subscribers from Canadian cable TV, or simply helps Ma Bell hold its own in the market.


Planned ComboBox features

Besides receiving Bell ExpressVu's DTH programs, the BCE ComboBox will let users:

  • access the Web from their TVs or PCs
  • send and receive e-mail
  • chat online
  • access instant messaging
  • log onto broadcasters' Web sites while watching TV
  • play games
  • cache top movies for instant video on-demand access
  • download content
  • use yet-to-be-produced interactive TV
  • create a home gateway for Internet access
  • connect IP appliances like the Sonicbox Internet radio.