Microsoft has taken a step towards delivering its vision of IP-delivered TV with a deal that could bring advanced TV controls into the homes of cable subscribers in the USA.

Cable company Comcast has agreed to adopt Microsoft TV Foundation Edition 1.7 software for rollout to as many as 5m of its subscribers, with an option to raise that number at a later date.

Foundation Edition 1.7 lets cable companies and some other TV providers offer an interactive programming guide, navigation tools and advanced features for capturing programs on DVRs (digital video recorders).

Microsoft aims to play a big role in TV, working toward a technology it calls IPTV, which delivers TV over IP (Internet Protocol) networks. TV on an IP network effectively could have an unlimited number of channels and deliver commercials targeted to specific viewers rather than the entire audience of a show, Bill Gates said. It also would allow operators to send out updated commercials to be run with shows that viewers recorded and watched days after the original broadcast, he said. IPTV could be provided by telecommunications carriers and other IP network operators as well as cable companies.

Video over IP has a better foothold today in Europe and Asia than in North America, said Yankee Group analyst Adi Kishore. There, the video industry is more competitive and less dominated by cable companies, and telecommunications carriers' local loops are shorter, making high-speed delivery more feasible, he said.

An NTL spokesman in the UK said there are no plans to deliver IPTV services in the near future, but added that the it is certainly a probable outcome in a few years. Cable bandwidths are set to grow to 1.5Mbps in the next year, with some providers’ bandwidth exceeding 2Mbps soon after. When you have this sort of data supply, and TV and IP entering many customers’ homes via the same gateway, it would be surprising if people in the industry were not thinking about delivering TV over broadband.

NTL and BT have both been trialling flexible bandwidth applications, by which users can temporarily boost their bandwidth in order to access IP products, and this would be perfect for something like IPTV, said the spokesman.