Cathy Avgiris, senior vice president and general manager of Comcast Voice Services, succinctly articulates the importance of the operator's voice strategy: “You don't have a triple play if you don't have a third product.”
While Comcast dished up voice services a bit later than other cable operators, it's now catering to a bustling bistro of digital voice subscribers under the leadership of Avgiris.
When she took over the Comcast Voice Services group in May 2005, after serving as its vice president of finance and operations, the operator's digital telephony services were still only in three trial markets: Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Springfield, Mass., with Boston around the corner.
Now the Comcast Digital Voice voice-over-Internet Protocol service is available to 30 million homes in 30 markets, and at last count the operator was on track to add more than 1.4 million new voice customers for 2006, beating its previous forecast of 1 million.
The operator ended the third quarter of 2006 with a total of 2.1 million phone customers, a figure that includes Digital Voice subscribers and circuit-switched phone customers it inherited from AT&T Broadband.
“Throughout 2006 our focus has been on scaling the business,” Avgiris said. “We're still in deployment mode. We're not as built out as others in the MSO community — we still have some catching up to do.” For example, this year, Comcast will focus on deploying Digital Voice in the systems it acquired from its joint acquisition of Adelphia Communications with Time Warner Cable.
For its voice business, Comcast is targeting 20% penetration by 2010 of the 46 million homes passed across all the company's systems. That means it hopes to have signed up more than 9 million voice customers, or to have converted legacy circuit-switched customers to VoIP, in the next three years.
To get there, Avgiris' group hired more than 4,000 employees last year (up from its previous expectation of 3,000) in customer-facing positions to install and support voice services.
What gave a boost to the voice business more than anything else is that in 2006, Comcast finally was able to market a triple play.
“Until last spring, our messaging in the media was single-product focused,” Avgiris said. For Comcast Digital Voice, that meant the pitch was, basically: “We offer it.”
Now ads promote the triple-play bundle for $99 ($33 for each service) for 12 months — a straightforward, easy-to-explain offer “that really lifted our opportunity,” Avgiris said.
The triple play has cut churn, but Avgiris said the lasting effects of the bundled offer won't be clear until initial subscribers start rolling off the discounted rate through the second quarter of 2007, at which point they'll either re-up or bail out. “We don't have a year's worth of data in any market where we've offered the triple play,” she said.
So, why has Comcast only been able to get VoIP going in the last year?
Avgiris said her group first had to streamline and simplify the phone business it picked up from AT&T. That involved consolidating four different provisioning systems into one in all of those 18 markets.
There were also dozens of pricing tiers in the legacy telephone business, which Avgiris distilled down to six packages.
“We referred to our circuit-switched business as Heinz ketchup — we had 57 flavors,” she said.
Then, when Comcast began developing its own VoIP service in 2004, it chose long-term operational efficiencies as its No. 1 goal rather than time-to-market, according to Avgiris. That required the group to develop and standardize its own systems for phone-number provisioning, E911 emergency calls and other functions.
The work she and her team did “was about making the platform as profitable as possible, so when we did launch IP phone service, we'd be able to come out of the gate faster.”
Simplicity lies at the heart of Avgiris' philosophy of how to ramp up Digital Voice quickly. There's just one offer on the table: $33 per month (in a bundle) for unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada.
“We understand it's becoming a more complex world. We're selling not just basic cable — it's high-def, it's high-speed data, a wireless gateway in homes,” she said. “You add phone service on top of that and it's complicated. The challenge for me was to challenge the team and say, 'Don't over-complicate this.' ”
In 2007, Avgiris wants to make the process even easier by selling embedded multimedia terminal adapters — with, of course, an offer to sign up for Comcast Digital Voice — on the shelves of retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City. “You go where consumers shop,” she said.
Avgiris, 47, joined Comcast in June 1992 as head of what was then its northeast region, where she was responsible for 600,000 subscribers in New Jersey and Connecticut.
She advanced through various cable operations positions, including vice president of operations for Comcast's southwest region. In early 2000, Avgiris joined the high-speed Internet group, which had 150,000 subscribers at the time.
With Comcast's acquisition of AT&T Broadband in 2002, she became senior vice president of finance for the newly formed telephony group.
Prior to Comcast, she was vice president and controller for Drexel Industries, a small company that manufactured forklifts.
“It was really a great training ground for getting into operations,” she said. But, she noted: “Cable is a lot sexier than the forklift business.”
Avgiris, who goes by Cathy (“If anyone calls me Catherine, I know I'm in trouble”), grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and attended Manhattan's Baruch College, where she received a degree in accounting.
Now a resident of Philadelphia, Avgiris said she's very involved in her community and church.
She's also president of a local women's philanthropic organization. “It takes you outside of the hustle and bustle of corporate life,” she said.
Still, when she discussed her hobbies — which include cooking and entertaining — Avgiris was able to trace a line of thought back to telephony.
She offered this hypothetical future scenario, capabilities Comcast may provide to customers within the next two years: While watching the Food Network on a small flat-screen TV in the kitchen, she downloads a recipe from Epicurious.com on the same screen, then clicks to call her friend to talk about it.
Voila! Your triple play is served. “It's all three mediums in one,” she said.