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Orlando to test future of cable

Coming soon to a home near you: a theater. Or at least, lots of movies.

Carried by pulses of light and radio signals, the hottest movies soon will be available to some Orlando residents in a state-of-the-art cable television system currently under construction by Time Warner Inc.

Not only will the new system allow viewers to see the movie, but it also will let them fast-forward through the dull parts, pause for popcorn and rewind to see the ending again and again _ just like a VCR.

Once completed in 1994, the system will be the first truly interactive television operation in America, said Geoffrey Holmes, senior vice president for technology at Time Warner, on Tuesday.

Orlando is the first test market for the interactive system, thought by many to be the next wave in television technology. Holmes said the rest of the nation will be wired by 1998.

Unlike pay-per-view, where viewers phone their cable systems to see a movie at a specific time, Holmes said subscribers to the new system can order a movie anytime simply by punching a button on their remote control.

The control will also allow viewers to fast-forward, rewind and pause a movie _ without interfering with the transmission of the same movie to another home.

A switching station stores 1,000 hours of programing, and the signals are sent individually to each home.

"This is true video on demand," Holmes said during a luncheon meeting at a convention of broadcasting promotion executives at Walt Disney World. "This is all about what the customer wants."

The Time Warner system is a pre-emptive strike at rival telephone companies, which are trying to snare a piece of TV's future by developing their own networks.

In both systems, television signals will be transmitted through fiber-optic strands, which can transmit large amounts of data very quickly through pulses of light. Currently, cable signals are sent by coaxial cables, which can send only limited channels and data.

Holmes said the Orlando system is the first time fiber optics will be "married" to coaxial cable, using a new technology. This merger is a crucial time-saver, Holmes said, because cable companies can build on already existing systems, while telephone companies must construct totally new systems.

"We can do it faster and cheaper than the phone companies," Holmes said. With fiber optics, the Orlando system will feature more than 100 channels, the interactive movies, plus interactive games and shopping networks. All available _ for a price _ through the cable box.

Consumers will pay about the same price for the new boxes and basic cable channels, but then pay for additional services. The company built a mini-system in Queens, N.Y., last year, but the video service was not interactive. Still, it was a success.

"Once people have it," said Daniel Levy, production manager of Time Warner Cable of New York City, "they don't want to go back."

Holmes conceded the 500-channel information superhighway is years away, but said a 100-channel system was months away. About 4,000 Orlando homes could be wired as early as January.

"The world is going to change very, very quickly," Holmes said.