Backtalk: Do You Say ABIS or ABYSS?

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It's still hard to believe that Tele-CommunicationsInc., once the nation's largest MSO, is no more -- at least not in name.

It's now just another division -- albeit it, astrategically important one -- of its new gargantuan-sized parent company, Ma Bell.

And so far at least, for all of the talk about MaBell's legendary prowess of being an astute marketer, AT&T wasn't toocreative in giving its new cable acquisition a very catchy or resonating name.

Instead, it rechristened TCI as "AT&T Broadband& Internet Services" -- a name that doesn't quite roll off anyone'stongue yet. But sources say Leo Hindery, the former TCI president and chief operatingofficer, "loves" the new name, and some credit him with its creation, ironiesand all.

Certainly not by design, but more likely by sheerhappenstance, the company's new acronym -- ABIS -- when pronounced phonetically,sounds more like the word "abyss," a word with dark connotations.

According to my dictionary, abyss means "primevalchaos, the bottomless pit of hell" -- a name that hopefully will not become aself-fulfilling prophecy.

For now at least, TCI's cable subscribers will remainin the dark about their new ownership and the new company's name. And that'sgood as the new company redefines itself.

After many years of having a reputation of being less thanthe most desirable provider of cable service, in recent years, TCI, via its widespreaddeployment of digital, has substantially improved its reputation.

People outside of the industry -- and these are the peoplewho count the most, TCI's present and future cable subscriber base -- probablywon't notice the name change for some time.

The first glimmer that consumers see will occur severalmonths down the road, when TCI customers get their welcome letters from AT&TBroadband, along with prepaid calling cards.

As of this writing, members from the integration committee-- comprised of executives from both TCI and AT&T -- were still hammering out a"brand-transition strategy," according to a company spokeswoman.

And according to at least one local system person, TCIsystems are not allowed to use the new AT&T name until they have proved "that weearned it."

Soon, systems will learn what it takes to earn it. So far,all that they seem to know is that they must meet or succeed the existing industry"Customer Service Standard" -- crafted by the National Cable TelevisionAssociation in 1991 and later incorporated into the 1992 Cable Act -- and that they musthonor the NCTA's On-Time Guarantee initiative.

Other items that the integration committee is addressing asit polishes its brand-transition strategy concern the quality of TCI's plant. This iscrucial, according to a company spokeswoman, because AT&T and TCI are creating newbusinesses over the broadband platform.

One of the new services is an AT&T Broadband package oflocal and long-distance phone service, Internet access and video in Fremont, Calif., withplans to do other bundled services in nine other markets by year's end.

One thing is for sure: Everyone will be watching closely asAT&T attempts to roll out that bundling strategy across the country. The ability tobundle video, telephone and Internet services, after all, was the very reason why AT&Tbought TCI in the first place.

Clearly, it's a new day for cable, as AT&Tswallows TCI and enters into joint ventures with other MSOs -- most notably thenation's No. 1 MSO, Time Warner Inc., and five former TCI affiliates -- to createwireline phone service over cable plant that reaches 43 percent of cable homes in thiscountry.

That's a very ambitious plan, and that kind ofambitious service certainly needs a brand with strong recognition and one that connotesexcellence.

AT&T has that with its existing phone service. But now,via its acquisition of TCI and its joint ventures with others, there's a danger thatbig does not always mean better.

Let's hope that AT&T's epic-scaled brandingand bundling plans are well thought-out and executed. Otherwise, there is a real dangerhere of the whole operation becoming one big yawning abyss.

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