AT&T Legacy Modems' Lights Are Dimming

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If the modems aren't DOCSIS, they won't be in AT&T Broadband's systems much longer.

That's because the Englewood, Colo.-based MSO has a plan to root out cable modems built before the Data Over Cable Interface Service Specification became the industry standard.

The result will not only afford the MSO's longest-running data customers a new Motorola SB 4200 cable modem and access to expanded services, but it also will free up a 6-megahertz channel within the cable network.

AT&T Broadband started the conversion process in August, shipping new modems to three markets in the Pacific Northwest. The MSO expects most customers will be switched over by the first quarter of 2003, although a few systems may take until the second quarter to make the transition, said director of Internet services product marketing Richard Herbst.

The older legacy modems — distributed in the early days of modem deployment by predecessors Tele-Communications Inc. and MediaOne Group Inc. — presently connect about 10 percent of AT&T Broadband's 1.8 million data subscribers. In recent years, the MSO has funneled newer customers onto its DOCSIS data channel, but it has kept a parallel channel open for legacy modem traffic.

While the older modems can still process broadband data, they cannot evolve to support newer service offerings.

"Our provisioning system, as with many in the cable-modem industry, doesn't recognize proprietary modems any more," Herbst said. "We don't have the ability to offer you the new services we will be creating, like speed tiers, like any types of quality-of-service stuff in the future."

Another strong incentive comes in reclaiming the parallel proprietary data channel. With all data traffic switched over to the DOCSIS channel, each local system will have an extra 6 MHz channel to play with.

"With a 6 megahertz channel, you can put in four digital video channels, and I think that is what most markets would look to do," Herbst said. "But that would be up to the market as to how they would want to use it."

In markets where the DOCSIS channel capacity is close to full and there are more legacy modems in use, AT&T Broadband will have to install new cable-modem termination system units from various vendors — and that factor sets the transition schedule. Markets that require less headend equipment will convert first, while other systems, most notably those in the Northeast, will need to be beefed up before a transition to all-DOCSIS.

On the customer side, AT&T will send out e-mail and direct mail notifications to affected customers. The modems will be shipped about two weeks later.

Because the affected customers all lease their hardware, they will not be charged for the new units. If they want to buy a modem, they may choose to do so after the conversion, Herbst said.

Once the customers receive their Motorola modems, they can follow the enclosed instructions to install it themselves. Providing modems from one vendor simplifies the provisioning process, said Herbst. And having the customer install the unit will save time and truck rolls.

"I think that we have put together a program here that is very easy for the customer to do it, and obviously it is better for us that we are not rolling trucks to all of these customers' homes," Herbst said. "We can actually do it a lot quicker than if we were rolling trucks.

"It makes it very easy to target at a headend level an entire customer base in the thousands that we can send these modems out to and have them up and running very quickly. So far it has worked very successfully."

While AT&T is confident the process should be smooth for most customers, the MSO has beefed up its customer-service operations to deal with transition snarls, he added.

From there, the only task remaining for customers is to decide what to do with the old modem — because AT&T Broadband doesn't want it back.

"They make good doorstops," Herbst offered.

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