Cable's Comeback Kid

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It's been just more than a year since Feb. 14, 2000, when Bresnan Communications president Bill Bresnan sold his systems to Charter Communications Inc. That deal brought in a whopping $4,500 per subscriber, enabling him, in part, to provide his beloved wife Barbara with a mansion in Greenwich, Conn., on the water which she loved.

She died last October.

Bresnan, a man in mourning-but a man enriched with six children and 10 grandchildren-is for now, at least, out of the cable business. It's a business he has loved, and one where he's been a major player since 1958.

In a move that didn't surprise anyone who knows him well, Bresnan several weeks ago bid on some cable systems that AT&T Broadband was unloading. He lost that round of negotiations to Mediacom Communications Corp.

But that's not stopping Bresnan, who is on the prowl for something that most modern-days MSOs wouldn't touch: fixer-uppers in rural areas.

"I miss cable people, who are really good people," he said when I caught up with him last week in his new offices, just a stone's throw away from his old, more spacious digs in White Plains, N.Y. "It's all about adding value and new services," he said, referring to his recent attempts to re-enter cable.

At first blush, Bresnan's new digs look like a typical cable office of yore, with elegant cabinets in the reception area that display some 100 awards from nearly every industry organization, neatly arranged and polished for all to see.

And the powder room even sports a scale from a bygone network, FitTV-a scale that's either miserably accurate or (as I hope) woefully off-kilter.

But those are vestiges of a cable MSO that no longer exists. The new office employs roughly 20 people who largely manage Bresnan's investments. Those holdings range from auto dealerships, a chain of small newspapers and, most recently, rural cable systems that could use a little TLC.

What Bresnan wants to do is what he did in places like Rochester, Minn., corporate headquarters to the esteemed Mayo Clinic. There, he built a virtual private communications network, offering doctors and the clinic high-speed access to the Internet over a secure, two-way-activated 750-MHz network linked over a Cisco Systems Inc.-encrypted headend.

That configuration, Bresnan said, gives doctors not only security but speeds equal to or better than a T1 line. The price tag is $89.95 a month, which includes cable TV. Think what that could do for a cable system's bottom line, and Bresnan's strategy becomes more clear.

In the university town of Marquette, Mich, Bresnan wired a community that craved high-speed connectivity-and was willing to pay for it.

Bresnan now wants to "fiber towns together" by concentrating on places that have businesses, schools and other establishments that want that same kind of connectivity, but have been bypassed-just as they were decades ago, when the massive project to build the Interstate highway system severed many towns from America's main arteries.

Bresnan sees great value and challenge there. And he has demonstrated how a private network offering advanced data services can reinvigorate communities that time has forgotten, and whose young have left in search of hubs with more economic promise.

Talk to him about his past success in helping local communities grow and it becomes more clear why he is looking at places like America's rust belt.

His model of targeting business-to-business customers-instead of just wiring residential homes mile-by-mile-exceeds the traditional cash flow of most cable companies, he said. But he's not tipping his hand about where his next system deal might be.

Wherever that might be, I hope he wins the next round. After all, Bresnan's strategy isn't about flipping systems like pancakes or swapping them out like baseball cards to build an investor's collection for sale to the next highest bidder.

There's something more heartfelt and noble going on here. But now, sadly, Bresnan is doing it solo-without Barbara, whom he reveres as his "original partner."

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