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Panasonic, Comcast Launch Tru2way TVs

Chicago — Panasonic and the country’s largest multisystem cable TV operator Comcast are celebrating the launch Wednesday of the first Tru2way CableCARD-enabled Viera HDTVs at select retail outlets in the Chicago and Denver markets.

The two partners are selling the products and services through Abt Electronics in Glenview, Ill., Ultimate Electronics in the Denver market, and Circuit City stores in both areas, where the switch has been officially thrown on Tru2way services.

Panasonic North America’s chief technology officer Paul Liao said other markets and retailers will be announced for similar participation in coming weeks.

Tru2way technology, which is the name given to digital CableCARD systems that will enable two-way communication between a digital-cable-ready TV set and a cable operator’s head end, is being used to create a common software platform that will enable cable companies, consumer electronics companies, content developers, network programmers and others to extend interactivity to the TV set and other kinds of devices, according to a Panasonic statement.

The new Panasonic Viera HDTVs will feature built-in Tru2way CableCARD slots enabling consumers to access two-way digital cable programming, like video on demand, without a cable operator supplied set-top box.

The capability removes the clutter of another set-top device around the TV and reduces the equipment fee cable operators charge (from $6.95 to $8.95/month in Comcast’s case) to lease their set-top components. However, some cable operators may impose a smaller monthly rental fee for multiple Tru2way cards.

In Comcast’s case, the first CableCARD in the home is provided free, but “nominal” monthly fees will be applied to each additional CableCARD, Mark Hess, Comcast’s video product development senior VP, said.

Hess said Comcast is ordering only Multistream CableCARDs, which enable tuning up to two channels simultaneously, for its systems. However, the initial Panasonic Tru2way sets cannot be configured to add on hard drives for digital video recorder functionality. 
Comcast explained the Multistream cards will work with the new sets as well as set-top boxes, including DVRs, supplied by the cable operator.

Digital video recorder functionality is, however, in the planning stages for future Panasonic Tru2way models, said Panasonic’s Liao.

Instead of the box, which formerly was the only way to relay and receive communication between a cable household and a cable operator, cable operators led by Comcast will supply CableCARDs to subscribers who request them to decrypt premium channels and services they have ordered.

The Tru2way bi-directional capability is not actually in the CableCARD, Liao pointed out, but in the circuitry inside the TV set.

Panasonic said it has been working closely with Comcast and cable industry research and development organization CableLabs on the long-delayed bi-directional CableCARD technology.

Cable operators and consumer electronics manufacturers haggled for years over a number of elements of the Tru2way agreement, including default use of electronic program guides.

In the first Viera sets, the EPG used will be supplied through Comcast’s service. Panasonic will not incorporate a guide of its own. Additionally, the first Panasonic Tru2way models will not include the Internet-delivered Vieracast video services offered in some if its other step-up plasma lines.

However, Liao said the system includes a DOCSIS cable modem that will accommodate software updates and to speed up the loading of the EPG service.

“The arrival of the first Tru2way HDTVs at retail combined with Comcast’s activation of the first Tru2way head ends are among the most significant milestones in the cable industry and is a huge win for consumers,” stated Liao. “At the May 2008 Cable Show, we stated with great confidence that the first Tru2way HDTV’s would be available for consumer purchase at retail by fall 2008. We are especially delighted to have partnered with Comcast and CableLabs to make good on that promise and bring the benefits of open networks to cable subscribers.”

Comcast’s Hess said consumer research the company has conducted indicates a desire for an integrated system that will work with one remote.

Comcast said it has been working with Panasonic to train retailers to sell and install the products in their markets. Sales people will be encouraged to sell cable TV service packages at the point of sale, and both companies are arranging a series of special rebates ranging up to $300 toward the cable service fee for various programming tiers.

“We have arranged special training, and in the first instances we will have white glove installers, because we want to make sure that those experiences are awesome,” said Hess. “Eventually we are hoping to get to the point where this could be a self install, but as we are learning about this new technology ourselves, we plan to be very helpful to the consumer out of the shoot.”

In addition to accessing service in specific cable markets, the CableCARD approach was designed to enable consumers to take sets purchased in one market to other markets, and still be compatible with the CableCARDs supplied by the local cable operator.

Richard R. Green, CableLabs president and CEO, said, “As Tru2way technology is adopted by operators like Comcast nationwide, consumers can be confident that exciting new interactive digital cable products and services from innovative companies such as Panasonic will work seamlessly with any cable network that supports OpenCable specifications nationwide.”

Panasonic’s first Tru2way Viera plasma HDTVs will be available in the 42- and 50-inch screen sizes. Models TH-42PZ80Q ($1,599 suggested retail) and TH-50PZ80Q ($2,299 suggested retail) are extensions to Panasonic’s PZ80 series of 1080p plasma HDTV sets.

Both models will access all digital cable services including electronic program guides and interactive and video-on-demand program offerings, which will be accessible directly via the television’s remote control.

Both new Viera models also include 480Hz sub-field drive technology for sharp motion image focus, a 1,000,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, Viera Link multi-component operation through one remote, and a built-in SD memory card reader for playing back digital photos.

Plans for future markets, retail partners and consumer electronics manufacturers were not disclosed, although Hess pointed out that Samsung is among a handful of manufacturers to sign on early as a Tru2way development partner.