PacBell Plans Digitized Movie Service

LAS VEGAS -- Pacific Bell plans to start sending movies in digital form directly from the studio to selected theaters this summer in an experiment that could change the way films are distributed.

Using equipment designed by Alcatel Network Systems, PacBell will send the movies through fiber-optic telecommunications networks to 12 California theaters.

Alcatel's associate vice president, Tim Phillips, said Monday that by the end of the year 100 movie houses in California should be using the service.

Alcatel, which is coordinating the venture, is working with the five major Hollywood studios, film distributors and theater owners to offer the service through telephone companies nationwide.

PacBell must get permission from the Federal Communications Commission to provide the service commercially.

PacBell also would have to rely on a long-distance company to shuttle the digitized movies across local telephone boundaries, something PacBell is forbidden from doing under a 1982 consent decree that broke up the Bell system.

Alcatel's equipment would enable a studio to digitize films and send a digital copy over fiber-optic lines to a computer, known as a server, which will be part of PacBell's telephone network.

Movies would be stored in compressed form in the server and be distributed over the fiber lines to local servers that would be part of local telephone networks. A movie house owner could retrieve the film from the local server and with a special decoder, located in the projection room, decompress the film.

Alcatel has developed a switch that phone companies can use to route the video traffic. Phillips said each switch can carry 1,438 high-definition-quality movies.

From a Hollywood studio to a movie house on the East Coast, a 2-hour movie would take 45 minutes to transmit, Phillips said.

Alcatel is talking to companies about developing the servers for the service.

Phillips said the company wants local servers to store 12 movies.

The company is also working on developing a software connection between the server and the switch. When this is perfected for the movie project, companies could use the service to bring video on demand to consumers, Phillips said.

But Alcatel is initially marketing the service to studios, saying it will cut their costs for duplicating and shipping reels to movie theaters and bolster quality. Digital transmissions don't get scratched or scarred.

The service also would permit theater owners to run different versions of the same films at different hours of the day or parts of the country, or quickly cut a "bad scene" from a movie and reissue it within hours, Phillips said.

By 1997 Alcatel wants to have 10,000 of the nation's 25,000 screens using the service, Phillips said.