Mainlanders in rural areas are being promised a deal by one of the nation's newest cable television providers, which aims to use satellites to overcome the problems of servicing far-flung areas. State-owned CBSat, in partnership with Amsterdam-based, Nasdaq-listed MIH, said it was aiming its services directly at rural dwellers. Residents of urban centres such as Guangzhou, Shanghai and Qingdao have cable television systems that can deliver both broadcast programming and data services such as Internet access. But industry observers say millions of homes in more remote areas do not have access even to basic cable services, largely because of the high cost and low potential profits from wiring up far-flung areas with relatively few people. With about 20,000 set-top boxes in place since launching, the MIH-CBSat venture currently broadcasts eight government-affiliated CCTV channels, 31 provincial channels, 60 government radio channels and an interactive TV channel with games and other data services. Using satellites to reach sparsely populated areas is not new. Very small aperture terminals, or VSats, have been used to transmit and receive data by companies with offices too remote for an underground cable to be practical. Future versions of the CBSat set-top box will have PC cards that allow reception of data transmitted using the Internet protocol, including streaming video. Not that the MIH-CBSat service will provide full Internet access. According to Jason Wang, vice-president for business development at MIH Asia, Web surfers will be able to download only officially sanctioned Web pages, which will be stored at company servers in Beijing. Mr Wang nonetheless is optimistic about demand for the service. 'If the government gives a full green light on the system, within a year I can sell a million boxes without a problem,' he said. Mr Wang and others foresee strong demand for educational services, electronic-commerce applications, such as home banking, and information, such as weather and stock quotes. Voice telephony will not be part of the package, however, because mainland regulations currently prohibit cable broadcasters from also providing telephone services. The MIH-CBSat venture requires consumers to own receiving equipment - an antennae and dish of between 45cm and 90cm in diameter - costing several hundred yuan per set. The set-top box and operating software to descramble the broadcasts, costing about 100 yuan (about HK$93.30), were developed by OpenTV, an MIH subsidiary that provides boxes for similar services in Britain and France, for networks such as BSkyB and TPS. OpenTV has seen a high level of interest from other broadcasters in Asia, according to Beth Loughney, its director of product marketing. Most intriguing to network broadcasters is the line of set-top boxes OpenTV has slated for release next year, which allow programmes to be downloaded overnight and watched the next day. These boxes will come with hard drives that can store at least eight gigabytes. 'I've never seen anything like the interest in recordable,' Ms Loughney said. A major drawback of these boxes for consumers is that there will be no fast-forward button, meaning they will not be able to skip commercials when replaying programmes.