Cable-Ready PC Effort Gets Lift from Modems

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The long and winding road to retail for so-called cable-ready PCs is garnering wider support in the wake of Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s recent certification of internal cable modems from Zoom Telephonics Inc. and GVC Corp.

The alignment of various computer manufacturers, cable operators, service providers and retail partners is beginning to take shape, perhaps in time for the upcoming "Golden Quarter," or Christmas season, although few are willing to make such an ambitious forecast.

Previous attempts by the cable industry to target the Christmas season with Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification modems on retail shelves were not realized. But whatever season cable-ready PCs appear at retail, there's enough momentum to eventually make retail a big part of cable Internet-subscriber acquisition.

"We're anxious and excited to see this thing move as quickly as possible," said Trey Smith, chief technology officer for Internet-over-cable provider Road Runner. The long-awaited certification of internal modems is "a watershed event for us," Smith added.

"Clearly, if we have cable-ready PCs in stores, it provides a great alternative for the customer." said Chris Caffrey, vice president of retail sales for Comcast Cable Communications Inc.

"We're in regular communications with both OEM [original-equipment manufacturer] vendors and national retailers," Caffrey said, to explore the cross-promotional opportunities of selling online service and PCs at the point of sale in retail.

Comcast is "telling the cable story to national retailers," including CompUSA and Staples Inc., he added, and it hopes to establish a presence in those stores to sell its online and video service going into the fourth quarter.

Expanding those relationships to include PCs with integrated cable modems, once they come to market, is a natural progression, Caffrey said.

A potential big winner in bringing cable-ready PCs to market is No. 1 PC seller Compaq Computer Corp.

"If there's a significant market opportunity," a Compaq spokesman said, "you can bet Compaq will be right on the forefront of it." The concept of building computers with internal cable modems fits in well with Compaq's broadband strategy, he added.

Last year, Compaq announced that Excite@Home Corp. service would be made available to its "Presario" computer customers by logging on to a section of its Web site where consumers could order the Internet-over-cable service and arrange for installation by an @Home cable provider.

Compaq's relationship with SBC Communications Inc.-the telco is selling two years of digital-subscriber-line service and including a Compaq Presario with digital-subscriber-line modem as part of the $60 monthly fee-may be duplicated on the cable side.

The Compaq spokesman noted that when consumers order the SBC service, they are patched through a "warm transfer" to a Compaq representative, giving Compaq the opportunity to take the Presario order and to upsell various computer components.

Compaq sees a similar benefit in entering the cable world.

Former Compaq executive Smith believes the first manifestations of cable-ready PCs will involve a "configure-to-order" model coordinating PC manufacturers, MSOs and providers such as Road Runner.

While pointing out that negotiations with PC makers are challenging, Smith said, "Road Runner has the pieces in place" to make a retail relationship, as well as easier provisioning of service, happen.

Last month, BroadJump Inc. announced that Road Runner would deploy customized versions of its "Correct-Connect" and "Virtual Truck" software, which aids in the qualification and customer-care functions of provisioning online service.

Eventually, BroadJump hopes to make its provisioning and qualification software nearly as ubiquitous as America Online Inc.'s self-install discs, which have flooded the market for years and lifted the online service's 23 million-subscriber base.

Regarding auto-provisioning, Smith said, "We've done some of the most advanced work in that area," noting that more than 50 percent of Road Runner's subscribers in Austin, Texas, are using auto-provisioning techniques.

Ultimately, he added, broadband provisioning should be as simple as provisioning a dial-up Internet account.

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