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Power Shift, TV Tie Likely In Cable Telephony Ranks

3/17/2002 7:00 PM Eastern

Even as cable telephony sails into the consumer marketplace, there are some subtle shifts in the wind — especially in where it gets its juice and how it is displayed. TollBridge Technologies sees both trends as part of an active year for its last-mile Internet-protocol telephony gateway designed to link to Class 5 circuit switches.

In addition to an announced trial with Comcast Corp., TollBridge expects three more top U.S. MSOs will tap its gear to deploy telephony service this year, according to Kevin Woods, TollBridge's vice president of product marketing and development.

TollBridge sees those rollouts as a move by operators towards battery powering at the household rather than the more traditional network powering strategy, particularly among MSOs fielding their first telephony offerings.

Access device makers are increasingly offering indoor media access terminals with built-in battery backup, and operators now see the cost advantage in shifting power responsibility from their network to the consumer's device, TollBridge director of strategic partnerships Greg Hutterer said.

"I still see for the CBR [constant bit rate] deployments that are happening they still have to network power," Hutterer said. "But certainly for the new deployments the operators are definitely looking at battery power because it does save."

INDOOR UNITS

Indoor devices are gaining favor among operators. They have an advantage over side-of-house units since they don't require expensive carrier-grade housing and the consumer can install the device. That saves an operator the cost to roll a truck for installation, Woods said.

Duluth, Ga.-based Arris Group also recognized the trend toward battery powering and indoor units. That company offers a lineup of indoor and outdoor customer access devices in switched or IP schemes.

"There is truth to the fact that with the advent of telephony over IP there are more operators willing to put the interface units inside the home," Arris vice president of marketing Stan Brovont said. "There are some that are prepared to do that for reduced capital expenditures."

But don't write a eulogy for outdoor, network-powered gear just yet. Arris still believes there is a market for it and last week introduced its new Touchstone Telephony Port, an external unit that combines the voice interface and the cable modem.

"When you do your own network power, you are less inclined to be at the mercy of the homeowner and possible problems that may come because they have direct access to the unit," Arris senior vice president of marketing and communications Mike Horton said.

Cable operators are concerned with telephony cost margins, but that hasn't resulted in strategy changes mid-stream, Brovont added.

"Those that are already in the business of installing units outside of the house to the best of my knowledge intend to keep doing that," he said. "The customers who have never offered telephony in any large scale way are all over the map. But it is true that the larger market right now appears to be for the indoor devices."

TV-BASED INTERFACE

Meanwhile, some telephony features are literally going above and beyond the call.

"We think that you will start to see some unique technology that allows you to use the television as a user interface into a telephony unified messaging service package," Woods said.

Although in the early development stages, such features include dialing the telephone via the TV, viewing text versions of voice mail on TV and translating unified messaging into text for TV display.

TollBridge demonstrated those features at the Western Show in December, and has been surprised by the response.

"We weren't sure that we were going to see anyone take a bite on this yet, but now we are just starting to see people say, 'Hey, I need to start offering telephone service, but I also want to differentiate it from the [incumbent local exchange carrier] somehow,' " Woods said.

Arris is also looking to wed video and telephony. Its Touchstone outdoor access device contains a remote relay that also controls the cable television signal. The common IP transport makes it relatively easy to take information from one medium and translate it to another, Brovont said.

"The whole value of converging the voice and data into a common transport, which is the IP, starts to really get your mind moving," he said. "And so we are now in deep conversation with several operators around the kinds of services that you could offer because of this new converged transport platform and have some demonstration services as well as some potential trial plans maturing quite nicely."

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