Charter Market Gears for Phone Blitz

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Charter Communications Inc.'s first crack at Internet Protocol-fueled telephone service deployment — and the marketing of it — switches from low-to-high visibility next month.

At the moment, Charter's telephone product is available to about 15,000 homes passed in and around Wausau, Wisc.

Available since last September, the service has been promoted through door-to-door demonstration tours and some mailers.

But on Sept. 30, Charter will expand the service to the entire Wausau area, including the 74,400 cable subscribers serviced by the multi-system owner.

When that happens, Charter Telephone Service, as the venture is called, will turn to various media to tout itself. Outdoor billboards will be introduced, as will a set of ads in Wausau Daily Herald, the city's largest newspaper. Direct mail also will intensify.

In two respects, Charter sees its Wausau rollout as a barometer of IP telephony's draw with customers everywhere. One aspect is operational, the other covers the message of cable as a one-stop source for video, voice and data.

"If we have our procedures down pat and offer a reliable product, it's a good indicator for future success," explained Mark Barber, Charter's telephony vice president. "And once we have this service well-marketed, we expect by year's end to come out with a triple-play bundle which offers some price discounts."

Charter did its low-key marketing wave for IP telephony last fall, positioning it as a full replacement service with such features as caller ID, call forwarding, automatic redial and speed dial.

The price is $19 a month, with a second line available at the same price.

The venture is drawing a solid response in its current universe, Barber said. He declined to give a subscriber number. Under a new corporate policy introduced late last month, the company will not release product category subscriber counts (basic, premium, digital, high-speed data, etc.) for individual locations.

Although Charter Telephone Service has functioned non-stop for 11 months, marketing was suspended in December.

Barber acknowledged the pause was longer than anticipated, due to a delay in reviewing the service's performance and scaling things up for a full area rollout.

Another factor was a conversion of billing system software handling IP telephony from DST Innovis to Convergys' ICOMS format. The conversion is anticipated to finish in a few weeks.

As with the first campaign, Charter will stress its product being a reliable replacement for current telco service, for 10-15% less.

Cross-channel messages, and possibly shopping mall exhibits, will become Wausau campaign elements in early 2004 — when Charter has a better idea about other IP phone markets.

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