Excite@Home Inc. is moving quickly to complete a
wide-ranging technology upgrade aimed at speeding up data service penetration and
"We're focused on enhancing customer experiences
through a series of initiatives, including ways of moving the market to self installation
and faster growth," said Adam Grosser, president for subscriber networks at
Excite@Home. "We expect to see 15 to 20 percent of our new customers performing self
installation in 2000 and are planning on hitting 80 percent in 2001."
Efforts to promote self installation by both Excite@Home
and Road Runner, the other leading cable-data-service provider, should help to overcome
delays in attaining a strong retail presence as cable races to stay ahead of its
digital-subscriber-line and wireless rivals, Grosser said.
"Retail distribution is still very much a nascent
activity," he said. "It's going to take a little bit longer than the
industry had anticipated."
Because cable systems are still making sure that the new
Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications are working well, significant
retail-based distribution isn't expected until next year, Grosser added.
Nevertheless, demand is pushing operators to the wall,
despite their stepped-up efforts to recruit and train sales personnel to accommodate the
flow of orders in the hot broadband market.
Self installation and overall customer satisfaction are
vital to the industry's ability to convince consumers that cable service is the best
approach to broadband connectivity, Grosser said.
"We think we're taking the steps that will keep
us ahead of the game," he added.
Excite@Home estimates that its subscriber base will hit 1
million by the end of the year, and company officials say analysts' projections of 4
million customers by the end of 2000 reflect their own expectations.
Road Runner said it added 100,000 customers in the third
quarter, bringing its subscriber total to 420,000. This would put the industry's
current base at well over 1 million.
Excite@Home is promoting self installation via several
measures, including the addition of online service registration capability and the release
of a self-installing version of client software @Home 1.7.
The new software adds two plug-ins -- the VeonPlayer and
MetaStream -- to support improved video and multimedia performance. It also provides a
"reset tool" that automatically resolves common problems experienced by users.
Excite@Home chief technical officer Milo Medin said the
service's browser options will soon include one that's more user friendly than
"One of the things we're doing is deploying a
smarter browser," Medin said. "I don't want to sound like I'm a fan of
AOL [America Online Inc.], but the AOL browser is very easy to use compared to browsers
like those supplied by Netscape [Communications Corp.] and Microsoft [Corp.]."
The new browser developed by Excite@Home will be less
difficult for the casual user to configure, making it easier for customers to use software
"clients," such as electronic mail and video or audio streaming, Medin said.
A better browser is one example of the vastly improved
service performance made possible by "XML," the advanced form of HTML (hypertext
markup language) that has become fundamental to Web content, Medin noted.
Like HTML, which formats text in ways that are consistent
across the entire Web. XML brings a level of uniformity and efficiency to multimedia
components -- including high-end animation and video.
"The difference in software and content with XML is
really changing the online world," Medin said. "What used to be encoded into
rigid frameworks is now configurable on the fly, and things that you had to configure are
now taken care of in the encoding process."
An example of this is Excite@Home's new
"self-healing" software, which can automatically reconfigure a computer
following a breakdown in how instructions are handled. This allows the company to ensure
its software is optimized to work with the highly integrated network intelligence used to
make cable operate as if it were a point-to-point delivery system.
Technically unsophisticated users who have PCs with
Universal Serial Bus ports can automatically configure USB-compatible modems and complete
the online authorization process themselves, Medin said. "We do USB installs better
than anybody else."
Excite@Home is also making headway in the infrastructure
upgrade vital to keeping up with growth and improving system performance, Medin said.
The effort extends from its backbone network links to the
regional data centers and beyond into the trunk lines connecting to headends.
Servers in the RDCs are a key target of the upgrade, Medin
noted. "We have terabytes of server capacity currently installed, and we're
going to need tons more within the next year," he said.
Excite@Home is also working with server supplier Sun
Microsystems Inc. to develop better ways to guard against failures.
Today, the servers employ a simple A/B switch to connect to
backup central processing units (CPUs). Excite@Home wants to go to "n-way"
clusters in which four, five or six servers are interconnected to back one another up
other instantaneously, Medin said.
Excite@Home has already moved most most major markets to
its new broadband backbone, which consists of a series of long-distance fiber rings leased
on a long-term basis from AT&T Corp. and a new generation of routers from Cisco
Systems Inc, said Medin.
"Most of the old Sprint [Corp.] infrastructure has
been turned off," Medin said. "And on the trunk side in our larger markets, a
lot of the networks that were operating at 155 megabits per second are now at 622 mbps or
1 gigabit per second."
Excite@Home is also implementing Cisco's Dynamic
Packet Technology to insert packets directly into the fiber in OC-12 (622 mbps) Sonet
configuration. This enables 50-millisecond protection switching over the fiber rings,
according to Medin. "This allows us to do a level of protection against traffic
disruption that we've never had before," he said.
The Excite@Home affiliates' market base in Ontario,
Canada has grown so large that the company "is looking to do OC-48 (2.5 gbps)
trunking there," Medin said.