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Cox Tests HDTV Cable In Omaha

Although the ink isn’t even dry on a new set of compatibility agreements for digital television receivers and digital cable services, one cable operator is preparing to take an HDTV service offer to retail imminently.

Executives with Cox Communications’ Omaha, Neb., cable TV operation told TWICE that it is preparing to conduct a “market test” carrying HDTV service over its digital cable platform.

Under the plan, the local Cox operator will deliver two HDTV channels using the QAM modulation scheme as part of its digital cable service. Subscribers who have a General Instrument DTC2000 digital set-top cable decoder box will need an HDTV encoder module that connects to the data port on the back of the DTC2000. The encoder will have HD component video output terminals to connect with HDTV-capable monitors carrying compatible inputs.

Cox has worked out an exclusive distribution deal with Nebraska Furniture Mart to sell the encoder module to HDTV shoppers, said Mark Shaw, Nebraska Furniture Mart video merchandise manager.

The store will sell the encoder for around $999, Shaw said, adding that he expects to package most of the HDTV modules he sells with HDTV-ready sets. Bundling a compatible HDTV monitor with the device will help to “buy down” the cost of the cable device, Shaw said. Also, a commission structure is being explored to reward the retailer for any new subscribers it signs through the promotion.

According to Bill Norton, Cox of Omaha’s HDTV project manager, the cable operator will offer HBO’s HDTV channel for no extra charge to subscribers who already have HBO service on the standard digital cable service. The second HDTV channel will carry the CBS Network television feed supplied via fiber-optic cable to the cable head-end by local CBS affiliate KMTV. The affiliate is not currently broadcasting its own digital station but will monitor the Cox market test to help implement its own digital TV rollout.

Shaw of Nebraska Furniture Mart said KMTV plans to supplement the digital CBS Network feed with local newscasts it will produce digitally. The CBS HDTV channel will be offered in the clear to Cox basic cable service subscribers, Norton said. However, the encoder module will be required to view either HDTV channel.

Although Nebraska Furniture Mart is selling the add-on encoder, Norton said his company will continue to lease the core digital cable box, although he did not know what his company’s long-term plan is for making digital cable equipment available through retail.

Currently, both Cox of Omaha and Nebraska Furniture Mart are waiting for delivery of the GI encoders to begin the program. Shaw said he has an initial order for 200 units. The goal, he said, is to offer the service in time for the NCAA Basketball Final Four (April 1 and 3), which CBS will televise in 1080i format under a sponsorship agreement with Thomson.

Nebraska Furniture Mart’s Shaw said his store, which will have a market exclusive on the cable offer, plans to promote the Cox HDTV service with in-store events, as well as HDTV demonstrations in several local sports bars during the Final Four telecasts.